I originally met Enrique Espinoza, Cooperativa Progresso Administrator, in 2008 when Juanchy a colorful local fisherman had arranged a trip for me with the local abalone divers.
Subsequently I wrote a Roadtrek column titled "A New Breed…Time Will Tell" praising Enrique and his group's efforts attempting to restore their local abalone and lobster fisheries to sustainable levels.
I wrote "After watching the commercial fishermen and their Cooperativa's decimate marine resource after resource in Baja over the years, listening to Enrique as he enthusiastically outlined goals and techniques being implemented by his group to maintain the resources, I couldn’t help but feel a twinge of hope that maybe some of the new breed of commercial fishermen are beginning to get it right!"
Recently I returned to La Bocana and was invited by my friend Enrique to tour their Aquaculture facility where they were growing abalone. Seriously, home grown abalone? What a concept! I can see a run on Aquarium equipment stores when this gets out.
Of course, I accepted and recruited another friend, Pedro Sors, producer and host of Cana y Carrete, a popular Mexican sportfishing television program, as my interpreter.
We began the tour of the nearly 9,000 sq ft. facility in a narrow room with tiled walls and white plastic buckets arranged around the parameter where a brood stock of twenty abalone mate and reproduce enough larva to ultimately replenish the abalone harvested, and more.
Using ultraviolet lights to stimulate growth the larvae begin to grow. When they have reached a predetermined size, they are transferred into temperature-controlled vats and fed a carefully monitored plankton diet. They remain in these vats until they have grown to be visible to the naked eye. The next step is to move the now visible mollusks to the more than twenty recirculation tanks located in a large outside area.
Each tank is equipped with special boxes made of plastic sheeting for the larvae to cling to as they continue to grow.
As the crop of eight to nine thousand grow, they are carefully monitored and each individual abalone is assigned a number which in placed on the top of their now formed shell, allowing the staff to fine-tune the diet of each generation for optimum results. Most of the abalone are transplanted to the wild in ten to eleven months and are about 1 inch in diameter at that time.
Oceanologist Aguilar Daniel and Jose Manuel Aguilar technical assistant maintain the facility normally. Only when the workload increases are additional personnel brought in to assist them.
The entire system was developed initially by visits to similar facilities in other countries around the world along with the help of visiting technicians from the United States, Japan and Chile, to name just a few of the countries that assisted in the early stages of this remarkable program.
With the knowledge provided and many trial and error adjustments which allowed for local temperature fluctuations along the Pacific, as well as adjustments to the algae and seaweed diet, the success rate has grown and the mortality rate remains at only 5%. The twenty-three year-old program has become extremely efficient, allowing for the harvest of abalone while returning enough to juveniles to the beds to maintain the sustainability of this valuable shellfish resource for the community.
While the Cooperativa's success with the abalone is impressive, there is much more. The lobster population which was once nearly decimated by overharvesting along the coast line in the 40-kilometer concession assigned to the group was recently named as one of five lobster habitats in the world that have returned to sustainable levels. . .a remarkable achievement for this remote community of approximately 1,500.
Beginning his second term as Administrator at the beginning of the year, Enrique Espinoza, Cooperativa Progresso Administrator's excitement is infectious as he explains the successes of his group. His eyes sparkle as he proudly gives the details of how the nearly 200 members voted to forbid gillnets in the nine-mile-long La Bocana estero effective at the beginning of 2011, and the protection of Merro (black seabass and grouper) making it illegal to catch them commercially as well as limiting them recreationally.
To replace the loss of income for the local fishermen, he is now encouraging members to look to sportfishing for a more reliable income stream. His organization now offers several programs for members to purchase on credit quality sportfishing equipment at a deep discount for those who choose that path, as well as promoting the nine-mile estuary for sportfishing, building small cabins, and training members to conduct sportfishing trips.
Cooperativa Progresso and their leader, Enrique Espinoza, are a shining light in the dimly lit world of Baja commercial fishing.