Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning for Sustainable Fisheries Management in the Northern Gulf of California, Mexico

Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning for Sustainable Fisheries Management in the Northern Gulf of California, Mexico

Written by Peggy Turk-Boyer, Hem Nalini Morzaria-Luna, Tonatiuh Carrillo-Lammens & Volker Koch

Figure 1: Map of the Northern Gulf of California, delimiting the coastal corridor Puerto Peñasco-Punta Lobos and different types of protected areas in the region.


The Blue Solutions Initiative has supported the NGO CEDO (Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans) from 2015-2018 to develop a plan for integrated management of small-scale fisheries in a coastal corridor with six fishing communities in the Northern Gulf of California in Mexico, using the framework of coastal marine spatial planning (Figure 1). The project addresses the need to reduce growing conflicts surrounding the use of this unique ecosystem, by clarifying user rights and achieving a viable and sustainable system for fisheries and ecosystem management.The corridor is a unique system that runs along the north-eastern coast of the Gulf of California, Sonora. The area includes Adair’s Bay, within the buffer zone of the Upper Gulf of California/Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve to the north, and it extends in the south to Puerto Lobos. It consists of six communities from two municipalities. Puerto Peñasco is by far the biggest, and depends strongly on tourism. The other five communities belong to the municipality of Caborca: Bahía San Jorge, Punta Jagüey, Santo Tomás, Desemboque de Caborca and Puerto Lobos. Even though all communities have their own characteristics, they have many ecological, social and economic attributes in common: ecosystems, currents, genetic connectivity of species, a shared fisheries office, species and fishing zones, buyers and others. Fishing is the primary activity in the area, but tourism is a strong and growing economic driver – offering both, new opportunities and challenges. Tourism, mining, agriculture and energy are also becoming more important and the variety and intensity of uses and pressures on the ecosystems in the region is increasing.

 Figure 2: View of the Northern Gulf of California, with the Sonoran Desert in the background

Biologically the corridor system is characterized by a diversity of habitats that include rocky intertidal and submarine reefs, a small island archipelago (San Jorge Island), large areas of sandy and muddy bottoms, two large wetlands and bay systems, and riparian and pelagic habitats that sustain a great biodiversity and abundance of fisheries species (Figure 2). These interconnected habitats offer sites for feeding, growth, spawning and reproduction for the incredible biodiversity in the region.

 Figure 3: Typical fishing boats, called pangas.

More than 45 species from different habitats are seasonally fished. For practical purposes, the communities selected the 11 most important species for management, including 3 invertebrates, 4 elasmobranchs and 4 bony fish. Artisanal fisheries are the most important economic activities and the least organized in the region (Figure 3). Over 50% of the fishing in the coastal corridor occurs without the required permits, which are both costly and complicated to obtain. Many fishers lack the resources or necessary documents to prove ownership of their boats, motors, and fishing gears, a requirement for registration and permit acquisition. This leaves fishers’ traditional fishing grounds vulnerable to incursions by other communities or coastal development in areas near landing sites.

To protect the endangered Vaquita porpoise Phocoena sinus, fishing in the adjacent Upper Gulf of California Biosphere Reserve is severely restricted. As a result, fishers from communities that traditionally used the reserve are moving into the coastal corridor to harvest the rich resources in this area. Overfishing is a severe problem and conflicts are increasing among fishers, between fishing communities and between the fishing and tourism sectors. There is little enforcement and fishers cannot rely on authorities to solve their growing problems.

To solve some of the challenges faced by the coastal communities in the corridor, a bottom-up process of Coastal Marine Spatial Planning (CMSP) was initiated, giving priority to traditional users and their interests. By joining forces with the coastal communities in the coastal corridor, CEDO hoped to strengthen property rights and stewardship, reduce conflicts between resource users, improve compliance with regulations, and enhance enforcement. Mexico’s National Commission of Aquaculture and Fisheries (CONAPESCA) became a key partner, providing funding and the needed authority to engage the fishing sector and to formalize important components for the process. The CMSP process has been approached in three phases, to gradually include all stakeholders: (1) Traditional users – small-scale fishers, wetland users; (2) Sport fishers and industrial fishers; (3) Tourism, agriculture, mining and energy. Because these distinct economic sectors operate under different legal frameworks, it is better to work with one sector at a time and to proceed with formalizing the pertinent instruments for that activity. Ultimately, all actors involved in the use of this coastal corridor will be involved in an integrated plan for its use. Here, we describe the first phase of the CMSP process in the Puerto Peñasco-Puerto Lobos coastal corridor that was partially financed by Blue Solutions.

CEDO played a key role in driving the implementation process and facilitating the formation and work of each of the management groups that participated in the CMSP process. CEDO gathered biological data, developed models, and assessed ecosystem impacts of the spatial management proposals, guided by the objectives set by the different groups and their feedback.

Management Structure

To start the CMSP process CEDO established a management structure based on an Intercommunity Fishers Group (IFG) as the primary decision-making body (Figure 4). This group consists of elected representatives from the six communities in the coastal corridor and is responsible for ensuring their communities are informed and consulted during the management process. The IFG is supported by a Technical Group, which includes scientists with expertise in Gulf of California fisheries, social participation processes, and marine conservation. The Technical Group participated by reviewing data, analyses, and the modelling inputs used to develop the spatial management tools and assessed the viability of the proposed management approaches and issued recommendations until the IFG reached consensus. Government representatives of all levels with authority over the management of fishery resources in the coastal corridor formed the Core Group. This group interacted with both the IFG and Technical Group to adjust the final spatial management plan and will facilitate implementation, formalization, and enforcement of management tools. The Core Group was led by CONAPESCA in collaboration with the National Fisheries and Aquaculture Research Institute (INAPESCA).

Figure 4: CMSP process and participatory management structure in the Puerto Peñasco-Puerto Lobos coastal corridor, Northern Gulf of California, Mexico.

Community Engagement

The process of building capacity of fishers in the IFG was continuous over 3 years, with a total of 72 workshops and trainings. Trainings involved a diversity of themes, from leadership, negotiation and communication, to rights-based management, fisheries refuges (=no-take zones), good practices and others. The IFG represents the central hub of the bottom-up management structure for the corridor, and their analyses and preliminary decisions were brought back to their communities for validation. To assure that these decisions were informed, many capacity building activities were also implemented in the communities, with a total of 287 workshops and 3,897 participants. A communications campaign was organized to keep communities informed about the process, using monthly bulletins displayed on community billboards, publications, social media posts, radio addresses and through IFG members that were trained to be spokespersons within their community.

Defining the Corridor Area

The spatial extent of the coastal corridor (Figure 1) was defined as the area that includes most of the fishing areas identified in fishery logbooks and CEDO’s surveys of fishing zones. The coastal corridor is bound to the north by Punta El Borrascoso, to the northeast by the polygons defined by the Marine Ecological Use Plan for the Gulf of California from 2006 and by the 200m isobath and Puerto Lobos to the south.

Selecting Priority Species

Eleven species were prioritized for inclusion in the CMSP process. These include benthic, demersal and pelagic species: blue crab (Callinectes bellicosus), black murex snail (Hexaplex nigritus) and pink murex snail (Hexaplex erythrostomus), flatfish (families Paralychtyidae and Pleuronectidae), guitarfish (Pseudobatos productus), Pacific angel shark (Squatina californica), banded guitarfish (Zapteryx exasperata), Gulf coney (Hyporthodus acanthistius), brown smooth-hound (Mustelus henlei), gold-spotted sand bass (Paralabrax auroguttatus) and Gulf croaker (Micropogonias megalops). The priority species were chosen because of their importance for total fisheries production (Figure 4). Shrimp is the highest value species in the corridor, but it was not included because this species already has its own management framework.

Legalizing Traditional Fishers

At the start of the project about 50% of the fishers had no permit nor could they demonstrate legal ownership of their boats and fishing gear. CEDO worked directly with fishers to register their boats with the Harbour Master, who supported them in the process together with the Puerto Peñasco and Caborca municipal governments. Many of these fishers stated that they did not know how to start nor how to obtain support to complete the lengthy process for registering their boats. Fishing permits were also a problem. For example, in Santo Tomas no fishers had permits. CEDO worked with government authorities and communities to propose a regularization plan for each community that looked to distribute permits equally considering actual fishing effort of both registered and unregistered fishers. For blue crab and murex snail, all permits should be homologated by 2020, to include fishing area, seasonal closures, fishing gears, and quotas from the proposed management plan.

Spatial Fisheries Management Tools

Through extensive deliberation with a multi-tiered management team, four management tools (Figure 4) were explored for the eleven priority fisheries: (1) Regularization of fishing effort; (2) local rights-based management areas; (3) establishment of a network of fisheries refuges, and (4) the use of catch quotas. From 2015 through February 2018 a total of 74 meetings and workshops were held with the different management groups to reach consensus on an integrated management proposal and finalize the specific instruments that might be applied to order the fisheries in the region. CEDO created a permanent work group with CONAPESCA and INAPESCA fisheries authorities and met four times to review all the data for each species, determine the best management strategies that incorporated instruments explored by communities and options for regularizing the existing fishing effort with permits. Four meetings with the technical group helped define scenarios that combine these instruments and analyzed the costs and benefits of each. The overall goal of this analysis was to protect fisheries and ecosystem health and services through the implementation of the four management tools.

As a result of this participative planning process, two formal proposals have been submitted to the fisheries authorities.

  1. An Integrated Fisheries Management Plan for the coastal corridor from Puerto Peñasco to Puerto Lobos, Sonora. The document summarizes this community-led management initiative, including available data on the ecosystem, its communities, and the eleven priority artisanal fisheries in the corridor. It outlines management objectives, strategies and specific management recommendations for the corridor and its fisheries. It also proposes to formalize the participatory management structure that has been operating since mid-2015 and to formally establish the corridor as a special management area.
  2. A proposal to establish a network of 26 fishery refuges that cover 61,000 ha or 4.4% of the area of the corridor including 19.5 % of the wetland area and 15.6 % of the rocky reefs. The proposal includes specific objectives for management of the eleven priority species in this project and includes a review of existing recommendations for effective networks of no-take zones for the Gulf of California.
 Figure 5: Returning from a fishing trip in the Northern Gulf of California.


The impact the project has had on public policy in Mexico is multi-fold and yet to be fully realized. If implemented by all the actors, participants believe the proposals generated can contribute to sustainable fisheries and conservation (Table 3). The open and participatory process that promotes fisher understanding of the laws and of the proposals has increased the potential for commitment and compliance of fishers. The strong scientific foundation of the proposals that were validated by the fishing communities also adds to its potential success. The integrated approach, which used multiple management tools and counted on a multi-sectorial collaboration between communities, government, and NGOs for validation, are cited as important examples at the international level. Surveyed participants believe the project created the needed space and dialogue between government and communities to understand and address the legitimate interests of local fishers and to resolve the gaps and challenges for achieving sustainable fisheries. Through this process traditional users now have the capacity to participate alongside other economic sectors to create a shared vision for the future of the corridor ecosystem.

Find out more at CEDO and on PANORAMA-Solutions for a healthy Planet!