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The Fishermen of San Felipe

The Fishermen of San Felipe
By Lee Lyons and Victor Rodriguez
The wonder of the Sea of Cortez goes far beyond its natural beauty. A haven for swimmers, boaters, and photographers, and a paradise for naturalists, much of the allure of this Baja coastal area resides in the remnants of its storied history.

Before there were tourists, before there were sun-worshipping vacationers and winter residents, there were the fishermen of San Felipe. They gave the town its first taste of prosperity and put San Felipe on the map. The Sea of Cortez offered up catches so abundant that the "fish taco" became a local staple and a Baja delicacy. Shrimp, shark, totoaba (sea bass), cabrilla (rock fish) and baqueta (grouper) abounded in the clear waters, providing a rich harvest for the fishermen.

Since the early days of World War II and until recently, fishing was a good living. The old fishermen of San Felipe tell the story of how they came with their families as young children or, later, as young men, seeking to establish themselves in a good profession. They made the difficult journey from Loreto and other locations throughout Mexico, first, by canoe or small boat and then, overland, to San Felipe. It took as long as three months to make the trip from Loreto, but it was worth it because fish were plentiful and the life of a fisherman was a good one.

Commercial fishing in San Felipe got its start during World War II when the plentiful shark population inspired a man named Jose Cuevas Torres to bring in a few other fishermen and establish a base where the Malecon is now. Shark fishing provided shark liver oil, which was bought by the U.S. government for its troops and shark fin which was exported to China. San Felipe's catch went overland to San Pedro, a difficult journey by truck that took up to two weeks because there were no paved roads.

Fishing families in those years included the Garcias, the Soberones, the Calderons, the Matuses, the Rubios, and the Castros. Juan Abelardo Rodriguez, son of the first Governor of Baja, was a pioneer in the fishing industry, managing canneries in Ensenada, Cedros, Cabo, and on Tortugas Island.

Celestino Sumadossi ("Tino"), remembers Rodriguez with a special fondness, calling him "a part of the soul of every (old) fisherman in Baja."

"He treated all of the fishermen with great kindness and respect," Tino says. "It was good to be a fisherman in those days."

Tino worked aboard the fishing vessels of the Sea of Cortez for more than forty years. He remembers the days when they fished for totoaba and a 120-pounder (almost 55 kilos) wasn't uncommon. Today, to avoid the extinction of the species, totoaba are protected and fishing for them is illegal.
"There were so many fish in the old days, and so much shrimp caught in our nets," Tino says, "that we used to just throw out the other fish from the nets for the pelicans and other birds to eat."

As the tradition continues today, most fishing by local fishermen was done from small boats (pangas), though Tino remembers the heyday of the industry when a refurbished World War II steel-hulled ship was used for holding the catch of many fishing boats.

"It held 100 tons of shrimp, all with ice since there was no refrigeration then," Tino explains, "but its hull was too deep and it couldn't get too near the shore for refueling and unloading."

Fisherman Ignacio Albanes remembers that by the late 1950s, the fishermen of San Felipe were taking 15 tons of shrimp out of the sea every week. During the shrimp "off-season", Albanes says they fished for octopus, clams and turtle and sold their catch to the fish broker.

Government "cooperativas" were established starting in the late 1940s to help regulate the price of fish and access to the fishing areas. All commercial fishermen had to belong to one of the local "cooperativas," which pooled resources so that they could provide low interest loans to the fishermen. Fishermen, like farmers, go into debt betting that their next season will be successful enough to offset their expenses and make a profit. They borrow money ahead of season for repairs to their boats and for supplies. If the season's catch isn't plentiful—or if other disasters occur—they still have to pay off the debt which could leave little profit. Sometimes when fishing was so poor or prices dropped too far, fishermen had to sell their boats to the cooperatives in order to pay off their debts. The co-ops also worked to prevent fierce bidding wars between fishermen which often would precipitously lower prices and harm the industry for everyone. The cooperatives flourished until the late 1980s when the industry began to wane due to high-tech commercial overfishing and devaluation of the peso.

Fisherman Florentino Mesa's family emigrated to San Felipe from Loreto in the 1940s. "Balanchi", as Florentino is called, talked about the days when the fishermen, the brokers and the cooperatives had good relations, and everyone involved was making a good living.

"The Ocean Garden Company, which bought shrimp, was a lot of help for the fisherman back then. An independent fish broker named Gustavo Velez also bought from the fishermen and we all did well.  The Ocean Garden Company was bought out two years ago by private investors. Since then the price of shrimp has fallen badly and the fishermen can't get the credit they need to fix their boats," Mesa says.

Over the past years, several forces have conspired to cause the decline of the Sea of Cortez fishing lifestyle. These changes have made fishing a harder, less profitable, life than it was in its heyday. The  populations and varieties of species of fish available in the Sea of Cortez have declined markedly. Prices of supplies have risen while the prices of fish have fallen, making if difficult for fishermen to support themselves, much less make a profit. And the loss of most of the cooperatives combined with increased competition from outside Mexico has created an “every man for himself” atmosphere.

Tino Sumadossi remembers the beginning of the harder times which they call "El Piojo." "In the late 1980s, these huge Japanese ships came into the Gulf of California and drained everything they could from the sea. They fished all day and all night, all year long, even when the females were laying their eggs, and they damaged the populations of fish so they couldn't reproduce anymore. We don't have the species we used to have because of that."

The loss of the "cooperativas" and commercial overfishing hurt the trade, but Tino suggests one possible remedy, a marketplace at the docks where fishermen can offer their catches for sale and store the fish in freezers until sold.

The current Marina, the fishermen agreed, does not serve the needs of the fishermen. Aside from a questionable location that does not provide the boats the weather-protection that is needed, the Marina should provide the fishermen accomodations to store and sell their fish, they say.

"Fishermen sometimes have to sell to whoever offers to buy instead of being able to wait for a better price," explains Tino. "If there were freezers, we wouldn't have to take the lowest prices offered."

"Balanchi" Mesa remembers that studies were done to determine the best location for a Marina, where the boats would get the greatest protection from the wind.

"The Marina was supposed to be by Cerro del Machorro," Mesa said. "Fishermen counted on the government looking out for their interests and the Marina was supposed to be a big help for the fishermen."

It hasn't turned out that way. The loss of the "cooperativas" and government protections, along with rising prices for supplies, declining shrimp catches, and falling prices all threaten the coastal fishermen and  jeopardize a picturesque way of life that gave Sea of Cortez coastal towns like San Felipe so much of their character and history.

There may be some good news. Regulations banning the giant commercial fishing enterprises that Tino talked about, and other environmental safeguards protecting endangered species from overfishing may be working. Shrimp fishing in the Sea of Cortez has been up two years in a row and the start of this year's shrimp season looks highly promising. Blue shrimp—the favored delicacy that has brought the region fame—is on the rise, while the less desirable brown shrimp count is down. The price for shrimp at the start of the 2007 season is higher than last year, another good sign for fishermen.

Conservation and protection of species remain a concern, with fishermen, large commercial interests, and environmental groups like Eco-Watch supporting somewhat different versions of prospective regulatory laws. One thing is certain, the Sea of Cortez continues to excite romantic images of a simpler time and a simple, robust lifestyle.

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