Mangroves: The Trees of Life

Mangroves: The Trees of Life

by Bryan Jauregui, Todos Santos Eco Adventures

This article first appeared in Janice Kinne’s Journal del Pacifico

Extinction. It happens. In fact, scientists estimate that 99% of all species that have ever strutted, slithered, swum, fruited, flitted or flowered on earth no longer exist.  Cataclysmic events like asteroid hits, smashing continents and massive volcanic eruptions have already caused 5 mass extinction events over the last 4.5 billion years, each wiping out 50% to 90% of extant species. So why do some people currently get so het up about the extinction of a pretty bird species here or a weird-looking fish species there?  Because it’s personal this time. After only 200,000 years on the planet our poor homo sapien habits have disrupted 65 million years of peaceful evolution to trigger the 6th mass extinction. That is, this time humans are not only the major cause, we’re also a likely casualty. Let’s face it, being at the top of the food chain matters not if there’s nothing underneath.

Mangrove Circle of Life. Collage by Tori Sepulveda and her students Monica Devine, Carol Bailey, Susan Willison, Joanna Spinoza, Christina Douglas and William Dubroraw.

Two Mexican biologists – Gerardo Ceballos and Andres Garcia of the National Autonomous University of Mexico – workingwith colleagues from Stanford, Princeton, Berkeley and the University of Florida, recently published an article in Science Advances showing that if the loss of species in the world continues at its current rate, then the current extinction could be on par with the 5 previous ones in 240 to 540 years – three to seven human life spans.  A mass extinction happening fast enough to be perceived within a human lifetime – it’s completely unprecedented. The study states that the triggers for these deaths – pollution, predation and habit change – are all manmade.  But Dr. Ceballos, the lead author on the study, offers some hope, “I’m optimistic in the sense that humans react – in the past we have made quantum leaps when we worked together to solve our problems.”

In other words, we need to get our collective act together.  The study concludes, “Avoiding a true sixth mass extinction will require rapid, greatly intensified efforts to conserve already threatened species and to alleviate pressures on their populations – notably habitat loss, overexploitation for economic gain, and climate change.” It’s perhaps not surprising that two of the study authors are Mexican, as Mexico is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, and actually is considered mega-diverse  – one of only 17 countries in the world with 70% species diversity. And here in Baja California Sur, mangroves are one of the most biologically important ecosystems in the state. In fact, mangroves are one of the most productive and biologically complex systems on the planet.

Magnificent Frigatebird Rookery at Isla Espiritu Santo by Ettore Botta

Mangroves are arboreal amphibians – salt tolerant trees that have evolved to bridge land and sea in tough coastal environments. They cover over 700,000 hectares (over 1.7 million acres) of the Mexican coastline, which is 5% of the world total – only the huge coastal countries of Brazil, Australia and Indonesia have more mangroves than Mexico. And they don’t just look cool, they are a full service life support system, providing food, refuge and breeding grounds for numerous crustacean, fish and bird species, waste processing and pollutant filtering for good ocean and wildlife health, and hurricane and storm surge protection for coastlines and coastal communities; with roots deeply embedded in mud, mangroves can absorb up to 90% of a wave’s energy. On top of all that, they’re a heckuva lot of fun to explore recreationally. Dr. Octavio Aburto of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography has calculated that these services can reach an annual value of US$100,000 per hectare, which means that every year, Mexico’s mangroves contribute up to 70 billion dollars to the national economy.*  Even Donald Trump would call that a lot of money.

Yet every year humans clear thousands of hectares of mangroves in Mexico to make way for tourism developments, shrimp farms and other agro-industrial developments, giving Mexico the dubious distinction of having one of the highest mangrove deforestation rates in the world. Dr. Exequiel Ezcurra, Director of the Institute for Mexico and the United States at the University of California laments, “This short-term vision ignores the losses for society that are generated by degrading such a valuable ecosystem.”* Dr. Aburto and Dr. Ezcurra predict that, at current deforestation rates, in 25 years close to 50% of Mexico’s mangroves will have been lost, and countless more species will succumb to habitat loss. To put this into perspective, the World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) estimates that the planet lost 50% of its wildlife in the past 40 years, and that habitat loss is the greatest threat to all remaining species.

Yellow-crowned Night Herons in Mangroves by Kaia Thomson

Dr. Patricia Gonzalez Zamorano, a landscape ecologist at CIBNOR (Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas del Noroeste) in La Paz who has been studying the mangroves of the Baja peninsula since 1997, cites a book on mangroves recently-published by her institution and others when discussing the importance of mangroves to biodiversity in Baja California. “The mangroves of Baja California are the northernmost in the Eastern Pacific, and they support a tremendous number of species. Research over the years has confirmed that our mangroves support 159 fish species, 152 bird species – 43% resident, 57% migratory, 214 seaweed species,  and 213 species of marine macroinvertebrates, including 72 species of crustaceans such as crab, shrimp, and krill, and 62 species of bivalves including oysters, clams, and mussels. While the rate of mangrove loss in Baja California is comparatively low at “only” 2% per year, between 1973 and 1981 we lost 23% of the mangrove forests surrounding La Paz alone due to development.” It can cost several thousand dollars and up to 100 years to restore a single hectare of mangrove to its full environmental services capacity.

Fish in Mangroves by Octavio Aburto

Dr. Aburto and Dr. Excurra worry that mangrove loss could cause irreparable damage to fisheries. Mangrove-related fish and crab species account for 32% of the small-scale fisheries landings in Baja California Sur, and mangrove loss, coupled with overfishing, have already had a severe impact on the state’s fishing industry. While the evidence is only anecdotal at this time, it is clear that many families who have been fishing in the state for generations are already looking to other sources of income as rapidly declining fish stocks are challenging their traditional livelihoods.

As homo sapiens we often make the short-sighted decision to allow a habitat to die, because we feel the resources required to sustain it are needed to allow mankind to live. It can take great creativity and commitment to find solutions to immediate human problems that will provide the biodiversity mankind needs to flourish past more than just the next three generations. The stakes are about as high as they come: Dr. Ceballos and his colleagues state that if the loss of species continues on the current projection, then “On human time scales, this loss would be effectively permanent because in the aftermath of past mass extinctions, the living world took hundreds of thousands to millions of years to rediversify.” In other words, save that pretty bird, that weird-looking fish, that mangrove today, and they just might return the favor tomorrow. Extinction. It happens. But it sure feels different when it’s coming for you.

*National Geographic Voices, the International League of Conservation Photographers, and Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mangroves in the Gulf of California increase fishery yields

Los Manglares de la Península de Baja California, Centro Interdisciplinario de Ciencias Marinas, Centro de Investigaciones Biológicas del Noroeste, Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur

Get Involved!

Rescatando Nuestros Arrecifes Y Manglares (Rescuing Our Reefs and Mangroves) is a brand new project taking place in BCS. It’s the brainchild of four marine biologists who, while sitting around the pool enjoying a cold beer, got into their favorite topic: how dirty the ocean is becoming and how plastic seems to be everywhere. Usually that would have been the end of it. But not this time.

Rescatando Nuestros Arrecifes Y Manglares

A date was set, a plan was made, and on July 22, 2015 more than 50 divers cleaned four reefs. Then less than a month later, on August 16, more than 100 kayakers and SUPers cleaned all the mangroves in La Paz Bay. Just a few weeks later, on September 6, the divers cleaned Pargo Villa, a rocky reef in 60 feet of water south of Cerralvo Island. While the divers were out a classroom of 5th graders cleaned the beach at La Ventana. Afterward the two groups got together to share what they had found, talk about how it got there, and how to prevent it from returning.

The organizers of Rescatando Nuestros Arrecifes Y Manglares – Mariana Padilla, Pepe Torres, Ronaldo Vilchis and Pablo Ahuja – have pledged to do a cleanup of a reef or mangrove every month, and so far have completed 3 cleanups in less than 3 months.

The organizers are seeking donations to purchase a laptop and computer projector so that they can begin environmental education in the schools of La Paz.  To learn more about how you can get involved and be a part of the project, please visit them on Facebook at or contact organizer Pablo Ahuja at .

ROCKIN’ THE MANGROVES. The rock band Linkin Park is taking center stage in conserving mangroves in Baja California. Through their philanthropic arm Music for Relief, Linkin Park has partnered with the environmental group WildCoast to conserve 61 miles of mangroves in Baja California’s Magdalena Bay. Through WildCoast’s #MangleEsVida campaign, the program is raising funds to help protect mangroves so that they in turn can help mitigate coastal flooding to protect wildlife and coastal communities. For more information on Linkin Park, WildCoast and saving mangroves in Baja California, check out #MangleEsVida and/or contact WildCoast’s Monica Franco Ortiz at .

Also check out our article, Mangroves: Coastal Problem Solvers

© Copyright Sergio and Bryan Jauregui, Casa Payaso S de RL de CV, 2015

Saving Espiritu Santo

Saving Espiritu Santo

by Bryan Jáuregui, Todos Santos Eco Adventures

Espiritu Santo photo by Carlos Gajon

If famed aviator Charles Lindbergh had not fallen in love with the daughter of the US Ambassador to Mexico, the story of Isla Espiritu Santo might be just another sad tale of extraordinary natural beauty undone. But the courtship of his future wife in Mexico instilled in Lindbergh a lasting affection for the country. So when in 1973 his friend and fellow conservationist George Lindsey invited him on a scientific exploration of the Sea of Cortez, Lindbergh jumped at the chance. The two men and their scientific team wended their way through numerous islands between Bahia de Los Angeles and La Paz, ultimately arriving at Espiritu Santo. Lindbergh was enthralled. The islands made such an enormous impression on him that during a trip to Mexico City a few months later, Lindbergh requested a meeting with the president of Mexico to discuss protecting what he now considered one of the most beautiful areas on the planet, the Sea of Cortez. Four years later the Mexican government issued a decree establishing 898 islands of the Sea of Cortez a Flora and Fauna Protection Area (Zona de Reserva Natural y Refugio de Aves Migratorias y de la Fauna Silvestre). George Lindsey, then the Director of the San Diego Natural History Museum, strongly believes that Lindbergh’s intervention helped to create the governmental awareness needed to get the decree enacted. It was a good beginning.

Espiritu Santo photo by Cabo Rockwell

Around the same time as Lindbergh’s transformational trip to Baja, a former Grand Canyon river guide named Tim Means was setting up the first major ecotourism company in La Paz, Baja Expeditions. Means’ business thrived as word of Baja’s remarkable flora and fauna spread, and demand grew for access to the natural wonders that the area’s remote location had kept pristine long after the west coast of the US had been heavily developed. But conservation-minded eco adventurers were not the only ones attracted to the area, and by the 1990s the pressure on Isla Espiritu Santo was intense: a real estate developer wanted to create a resort casino on the island. From the outside it seemed absurd that a casino had even the remotest possibility of being approved in a natural protected area, but Mexico’s traditionally lax approach to conservation enforcement afforded the developer optimism.

Espiritu Santo photo by Craig Ligibel

While most of the islands in the Sea of Cortez were federal lands, a few were privately owned, and Espiritu Santo was owned by an ejido.  Ejidos, created as part of Mexico’s land reform movement after the Revolution of 1910, are rural collectives of people who own property communally. Traditionally ejidos were not allowed to sell their property, but the constitutional obstructions to ejido land sales were removed in 1992, and the ejido owners of Espiritu Santo lost little time in taking advantage of this new freedom. By 1997 they had sub-divided 90 hectares around Bonanza Beach into 36 lots and were selling them off. Cabins were actually constructed on some of the lots, but in a move that would have made Lindbergh proud, a federal judge deemed them illegal under the 1978 decree and they were torn down. But the real estate developer who owned some of the properties was pushing hard on his casino proposal. Tim Means was prepared to push back.

Means started his onslaught by personally buying two properties smack in the middle of the developer’s proposed casino area.  This immediately diminished the attractiveness of the project for the developer, and inclined him towards negotiation. Means then enlisted the aid of leading Mexican businessmen in the area, who retained and paid for the law firm that was ultimately able to arrange the buy out the developer and all but one of the remaining properties for sale on Bonanza Beach. This all took a great deal of time and maneuvering, but Means and his team persevered. All the properties they bought  were donated to the federal government.

Espiritu Santo photo by Carlos Gajon

When the immediate threat of the casino was neutralized, Means and a coalition of conservationists were able to put together a deal to purchase the rest of the island, which they bought from the ejido for US$3.3 million. Their subsequent donation of Espiritu Santo to the nation is commemorated by a famous sculpture of a dove on the malecon in La Paz.

The purchase structure that resulted in Espiritu Santo’s conservation in perpetuity demonstrates the power of collaboration among a diverse group of constituents when fighting to preserve wilderness areas: about one third of the money came from Mexican funders, another third from American funders via the Nature Conservancy, and the rest through an anonymous gift to the World Wildlife Fund. The David and Lucille Packard Foundation then donated US$1.5 million towards the future management of Espiritu Santo. This type of international cooperation set the stage for future and ongoing battles against mega-developments  elsewhere in Baja California Sur. As a direct result of Means’ successful activism, Espiritu Santo and 244 other islands in the Sea of Cortez were subsequently named a World Heritage Site in 2005.

But none of this would have happened without the will of the Mexican people.  As a result of colonial rule, the Mexican citizenry traditionally felt they had no voice in government, so agitation for change was not a big feature of public life. But in the 1970s this started to change, most notably in the environmental  arena, and Mexicans began to create organizations committed to protecting the country’s immense natural resources. This process lead to the creation of the Secretaria de Desarollo Urbano y Ecologia (Secretary of Urban Development and Ecology) in 1983, and in 1987 the general law of ecology and natural resources. One of the early successes of all this effort was the 1988 declaration of the Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve in the states of Mexico and Michoacan.

Worthy of Protection. Photo by Carlos Gajon.

The people of Mexico in general, and of Baja California Sur in particular, are now intently focused on protecting their natural heritage. In Baja California Sur residents have banded together in recent years to defeat mega-developments in Balandra Bay, El Mogote and Cabo Pulmo, using the reach and resources of both local and international NGOs to aid their cause (See our blog post Conserving the Beauty of Baja). Public outrage and grassroots campaigning have stymied the efforts of companies seeking to operate open-pit gold mining companies in the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains. Like Lindbergh and his nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic, they are succeeding against considerable odds. Like Tim Means and his environmental coalitions, they are hunkered down and ready for the long haul. As the great conservationist Teddy Roosevelt once said, “Great thoughts speak only to the thoughtful mind, but great actions speak to all mankind.” The protection of Isla Espiritu Santo and the islands of the Sea of Cortez wrought by Tim Means and his coalition will speak to the world for generations to come.

Sources: Two excellent books and Tim Means provided the source material for this article. The books are Isla Espiritu Santo: Evolución, rescate y conservación by Exequiel Ezcurra, Harumi Fujita, Enrique Hambleton and Rodolfo Garrio; and Wildlands Philanthropy: The Great American Tradition with essays by Tom Butler and photographs by Antonio Vizcaino.

Todos Santos Eco Adventures operates a tent camp on Isla Espiritu Santo from which visitors can explore the wild natural beauty of the island and the Sea of Cortez.

Why do we care about Espiritu Santo and other areas of Mexico?

There are over 200 countries in the world today but only 12 of them can claim to be “mega-diverse”. A country is considered mega-diverse if it has between 60% and 70% of the total biodiversity of the planet, and Mexico is one of only 3 such countries with coastlines on both the Atlantic and Pacific (the United States and Colombia are the other two). Mexican government sources indicate that Mexico’s global ranks for biodiversity are as follows:

  • Reptiles: #2
  • Mammals: #3
  • Amphibians: #5
  • Vascular plants: #5
  • Birds: #8

That’s something worth bragging about – and protecting!

This article was first published in Janice Kinne’s Journal del Pacifico

© Copyright Sergio and Bryan Jauregui, Casa Payaso S de RL de CV, 2015