MAR LIBRE – Still Rescuing Our Reefs and Mangroves

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By Tamara Double

Mar Libre is a La Paz-based action group of predominantly Mexican volunteers of all ages and walks of life, with a smattering of foreign residents just for good measure.  Their mission is to stem the tide of man-made trash and pollutants that are rapidly choking our oceans and killing marine life.  Focusing on the miles of local shoreline, the group meets once a month at an allotted site and sets about removing plastics, glass, fishing debris, aluminium cans and other metals, building materials, car tyres – in fact, anything that doesn’t belong there – from the mangroves and adjoining areas of beach.  In the summer months, the diving volunteers collect debris from the reefs – predominantly fishing line entangled in coral heads, fishing nets and bits of old rope.

These clean-up events are organised by one of Mar Libre’s founders, Pablo Ahuja, a New Yorker who fell in love with the Sea of Cortez on his first visit many years ago and returned here to study marine biology. He has lived in La Paz ever since.  Back in 2015, he and a group of fellow marine biologists were sitting around the pool, drinking beer one fine July day, discussing the increasing amounts of trash they were finding in the sea and along the shoreline. They decided there and then to organise a group of divers to go and clean up the reef around the little island of San Rafaelito, which is a popular site for fishing, as well as diving. More than 30 divers showed up for that first organised clean-up nearly 4 years ago, and removed a mountain of fishing line and all manner of garbage from the bottom. It was a resounding success.

The following month the group founders decided to tackle the cleaning of the dense mangrove forest along the southern shore of the El Mogote sandspit, across the channel from the city. Volunteers made the crossing by kayak, paddleboard and panga. What they found there was truly shocking. Litter was strewn over the small beaches and further inland across the tidal flood plain, behind the mangrove trees. The mangrove’s long and tangled roots were wrapped in plastic bags and acted as traps for every bit of floating plastic that had made its way across the channel from the city, via the wind and the floods after rain. Glass bottles and beer cans lay half-buried in the muddy shallows, and worst of all, there were big chunks of Styrofoam (also known as unicel or polystyrene) shedding their tiny round components all over the place. In one area, they found several large piles of both coarse and fine filament fishing nets and a load of synthetic woven sacks, dumped there by fishermen. After stuffing it all into garbage bags, they discovered numerous small white scorpions scuttling around on the spot where they had been sheltering under the sacks. One of the volunteers was standing barefoot just a few inches from them!

That first mangrove clean-up made me realise how vital it is to rid the mangroves of every vestige of plastic and Styrofoam, to prevent their breakdown by the sun and waves into microplastics. Mangroves are nurseries for juvenile fish, most of which start their precarious lives as tiny larvae, floating about in search of food. Their first few meals are crucial to their development and survival. But research has shown that even the smallest marine organisms, such as plankton and certainly fish larvae, are ingesting microplastics, which can kill them or severely stunt their growth. If they then live long enough to be eaten by bigger fish the plastic load increases up the food chain until it passes into the mammals, such as dolphins, sealions and us! In either case, everyone loses. 

By September 2015 the volunteer group was officially named Rescatando Nuestros Arrecifes y Manglares (Rescuing Our Reefs and Mangroves). The monthly clean-ups of either reefs or mangroves has continued consistently and with great success. Some clean-ups have gone further afield, including Pargo Reef at Cerralvo island, the southern end of Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park and even a joint beach clean-up with a similar group in Loreto!

The volunteer group has found on repeat visits to sites they have already cleaned, that each time there is less trash than the last time. This indicates that the group are not only doing a great job, but that there is less trash entering the sea and the mangroves.  We can only hope that’s true.

As for the group’s original name – the public struggled to remember it and even members of the group had a hard time getting it right!  So, after some brainstorming, they eventually became Mar Libre.  But they are all still rescuing our reefs and mangroves!

Tamara Double is British but was born in Croatia in 1954. She speaks 4 languages and is passionate about birds and marine life. She met her husband, Alex, in the Red Sea in 1979 and worked with him there as a dive guide for 14 years. Back in Britain, Tamara ran her own very successful skincare clinic, until 2014, when the couple, along with Tamara’s 89 year-old mom and their now 30 year old cockatoo, Gnasher, moved to La Paz for good.  They are now a part of the local community, are involved in marine conservation projects and have been committed to caring for the birds in the local Serpentario since they got here.  La Paz has given them the life they always wanted.

Photos courtesy of Alex Double