I did not hesitate to go when my friend Don and his family invited me on one of their trips to a tiny fishing island, El Pardito. The island was charming and the fishermen welcoming. It was an experience I’ll never forget.
North of La Paz in the Gulf of California there is a tiny island called El Pardito where a family of fishermen has lived for the past 100 years. Fishing for decades in the gulf, the Cuervas family became very knowledgeable about all the species living there, especially the sharks and rays. Researchers from far and wide come to learn from the family.
Don Croll from UC Santa Cruz has been bringing his grad students to El Pardito for over 30 years where has become such close friends with the family he is considered family himself. When the Monterey Bay Aquarium wanted to study manta rays for a possible exhibit, Don knew exactly where to go for advice.
We set up camp on the beach using a large tarp to create a comfortable living space. Then we slept in tents on the beach.
Every day the fishermen had to mend their nets before setting out.
When the fishermen brought in their catch, the fish were counted and weighed as part of a continuing research project. They were catching all sorts of fish including 65 mobulas the week I was there. They took tissue samples from the mobulas for DNA analysis and recorded the stomach contents of a few individuals.
The fishermen then salted and dried all the mobulas to be sold in town. Over the years generations of local fishermen (more recently commercial operations), devastated the population of rays in the Gulf. Don and his teams’ research became more important than ever.
When I was there, I helped Don and his crew put satellite tags on mobula rays. On six afternoons we went out tagging from a small panga. The rays were first caught with a net and brought close to the boat.
The team was studying the rays’ long-distance movements to understand migration patterns between the gulf of California and the Pacific Ocean. Five rays received tags. The satellite tags were programed to release in six months so the scientists could retrieve the data.
Pangas are the type of small sturdy boat used everywhere in Baja California. They are heavy boats requiring lots of muscle to haul up onto the beach. Our panga was called Cachalote which means sperm whale.
Juan “Pablo” Cuervas, whose grandfather originally came to EL Pardito, is a tremendous help with Don’s research.With so much research going on, the Cuervas family has become dedicated conservationists. Pablo’s sons, Juan and Felipe, are now helping establish fish refuge zones for monitoring improvements in the fish populations. And it is now illegal to catch mobula rays. Today Juan says, “All of us on El Pardito used to be the enemies of conservation. But after years of working with Don, Amy, and Luli, our perspective has really changed. We no longer have the luxury of the previous generations of fishermen to catch everything without a thought. We now need to give back to the ocean.”
Miriam, Juan and Felipe’s sister, made friendship bracelets to sell to the occasional tourist boats that visited the island and in town.