Rescuing Our Reefs and Mangroves

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logoBy Pablo Ahuja

In July of 2015, several marine biologists were poolside in La Paz, enjoying the beautiful Baja California Sur weather. As usual when you gather marine biologists and beer, the talk eventually turned to how dirty our oceans are becoming, pollution, fishing debris, microplastics, etc.

This time, though, it led to more than just talk. The conversation had become focused on a single popular dive site in La Paz Bay named San Rafaelito, which is a small island that is home to sea lions, tropical fish, octopi, lobsters, and the rest of the beautiful marine life in the Sea of Cortez. The decision was made to organize a group of divers and clean the spot that same month; in fact, the pledge was made to clean a reef or mangrove every month. They adopted the phrase Pagando la renta a la Pachamama (Paying the Rent to Mother Earth) as their slogan.

That July, more than 30 divers, locals, and foreigners cleaned San Rafaelito. They found tires, fishing nets, lines, hooks, and spark plugs which are commonly used as weights. In addition, discarded anchors, a propane tank, bottles, plastic, and scrap metal where removed from the reef.

That August, the group expanded their outreach and decided to use kayaks, Stand Up Paddle (SUP) boards, and snorkelers to clean the mangroves across the channel from La Paz’s scenic malecón.

Mariana Padilla, one of the original organizers, said, ¨We wanted to get as many people involved as we can; lots of people enjoy the sea and not all of them are divers. Our goal is to clean the sites no one else is even thinking about cleaning, places that are trashed and are also not easily accessible.”

The mangroves are a perfect example of that. Mangroves have shallow water, entangling roots and branches, and are more than a little buggy. They are also the home to migratory birds and juvenile fish, as well as being a habitat where resident bottlenose dolphins teach their young to hunt. The mangrove trees, the only trees that can grow in salt water, have long roots that extend from the high-tide line down to the muddy bottom. It is these roots which provide sanctuary for so many marine animals; but, unfortunately they also quickly become enmeshed with floating plastic, abandoned fishing nets, and other marine debris.

In September, the volunteer group, now officially named Rescatando Nuestros Arrecifes y Manglares (Rescuing Our Reefs and Mangroves) or RNAM, switched its focus to Cerralvo Island. Cerralvo is a beautiful island offshore of La Ventana. In the winter, it is one of the most popular spots in the world for kiteboarding and windsurfing due to the strong northern winds. In the summer, it is a popular spot for SCUBA diving or spearfishing; and year round, the surrounding waters are subjected to both commercial- and sport-fishing pressures.

From a single reef on south of the island, Pargo Reef, the divers removed more than 100 pounds of fishing line from the coral heads. Hooks, nets, and anchors made up the rest of the haul. While the reef was disentangled, the local school kids cleaned the beach. Then the two groups shared with each other what they had found and ideas about how it might have gotten there, and what could be done to avoid future pollution.

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In October, RNAM involved more than 50 kayakers and SUP boarders to clean the mangroves in the inner bay near El Centenario. ¨This is an area that is heavily affected by the storm runoff in the rainy season and all the plastic that comes with it,¨ said Padilla.

October also saw RNAM expand its mission to school presentations about marine debris. ¨We need to do more than just clean trash. We need to fix the problem at the source and educate the next generation,¨ said Padilla.

¨Our goal is an average of ten environmental education presentations in La Paz schools every month, and so far we have reached that goal, ¨ explained Padilla. ¨We hope to expand to Cabo’s schools in 2016,¨ she concluded.

In November, the volunteers switched back to using divers and snorkelers and cleaned four reefs in Pichilingue Bay and around Gaviota Island; and in December, 2015, they finished paying the rent for the year with a cleanup of the mangroves on the El Mogote sandbar.

¨In 2016 we will continue the cleanups and school presentations,¨ said Padilla. ¨So far we have operated on the generosity of dive shops, as well as other local businesses, and our all-volunteer cleanup crews, to complete seven cleanups in seven months,¨ she explained.

If you would like to help or find out more, please visit Rescatando Nuestros Arrecifes y Manglares on Facebook, or call 612 154 9859 in La Paz.

Pablo Ahuja is a marine biologist and one of the original organizers of Rescatando Nuestros Arrecifes y Manglares.


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