Mexican government officials reached agreement with shrimp trawlers in late October in a contentious dispute over fishing restrictions in a marine reserve. The agreement, which allows trawlers to resume harvesting shrimp in the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve, ended community protests that had blocked the movement of hundreds of tourists between Mexico and the USA.

The dispute was sparked in September when Mexico’s environment secretariat announced an emergency law to prohibit trawling in the reserve and restrict the types of gillnets allowed. The measures were intended to protect benthic habitat and reduce bycatch of endangered species, including the vaquita, an endemic species of porpoise. However, members of communities surrounding the reserve – almost entirely dependent upon shrimp fishing as a livelihood – viewed the law as a threat. Street protests by fishermen and their families began in October, and by mid-month had grown to include a blockade of the highway leading from the reserve area to the US border. At that point, federal police ordered the protesters to disperse, and Mexican environment officials began negotiations to resolve the crisis.

The agreement allows 130 trawlers from local communities to resume fishing in the reserve under certain conditions. (Gillnetters working in small pangas were never banned from the reserve.) Peggy Turk Boyer, executive director of CEDO, an NGO active in fisheries issues and located next to the reserve, said that although the compromise agreement might seem to be a setback for conservation goals, it was an improvement over the protection that had existed in the region just a few months earlier. Prior to the September regulation, for example, the entire Pacific fleet of Mexican trawlers – totaling 450 vessels – was allowed in the reserve. “It is clear that significant advances have been made,” she said.

The September restrictions marked an effort by SEMARNAT (Secretaria de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales), Mexico’s environment secretariat, to strengthen protection of marine protected areas throughout the nation’s waters. Laws that took effect in 2000 restricting high-bycatch fisheries and seafloor destruction in MPAs have emboldened the agency. Silvia Manzanilla, an assistant on marine mammal issues at SEMARNAT, said that shrimp trawling is incompatible with habitat restoration and vaquita recovery in the Upper Gulf, and she would not rule out a total ban on trawling there in the future. “Environmental law in Mexico is only beginning to be taken into account,” said Manzanilla. “We are establishing our boundaries for the first time. Natural protected areas are under our jurisdiction and we will fight to ensure that environmental laws and regulations are respected.”

For more information:

Peggy Turk Boyer, CEDO Intercultural, Oficina Mexico, Apartado Postal #53, Puerto Penasco, Sonora, Mexico. Tel: +1 638 382 0113; E-mail:

M. en C. Silvia Manzanilla Naim, Asesora del C. Secretario, Blvd. Ruiz Cortinez 4209, Col. Jardines en la Montana, Tlalpan, Mexico 14210 D.F. Tel: +52 56 28 07 04; E-mail: