To Fish or Not to Fish?

Part B: Gulf of California: Aquarium of the World

Gulf of California. Photo courtesy of NASA's Visible Earth Catalog.

Renowned ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau once called the Gulf of California the "aquarium of the world." Nestled between the Baja California peninsula and mainland Mexico, this strip of sea represents just 0.008% of the world's seas, but is home to nearly 900 species of fish and 34 species of marine mammals. The high biodiversity of this region is due to its wide variety of habitats and complex geological and oceanographic history. The Gulf of California is also economically valuable, yielding approximately half of the entire fish catch for all of Mexico.

The Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez, has been referred to as a microcosm of what is happening to the world's oceans. In recent years, the rich biodiversity of this region has been threatened by the growth of economic activities. Decreased freshwater flow from the Colorado River, urban waste and agricultural chemical runoff, and destructive and wasteful fishing practices have resulted in the deterioration of the Gulf of California ecosystem. There are now 39 Gulf species on the World Conservation Union's endangered and threatened species list.

The richness and productivity of the Gulf of California marine ecosystem make it one of the world's top conservation priorities. Multiple protected areas have been established in this region to safeguard the inhabitants of the Gulf, the Baja California, and the neighboring mainland.

  1. Watch the award-winning film Ocean Oasis for a rare up-close look at the wildlife of the Sea of Cortez and the desert of the Baja California peninsula.

    Stop and Think

    1: Explain why the Gulf of California is an ideal location for ecosystem-based management. Provide examples from the film.

  2. OPTIONAL: To learn more about the plants, animals, and places featured in the film, visit the Ocean Oasis Field Guide.
  3. Defying Ocean's End is an agenda of action, created by nearly 150 experts from around the world, to safeguard the ocean for generations to come. The Gulf of California was one of 11 marine ecosystems deemed to be critically endangered. Read the Defying Ocean's End profile of the Gulf of California.

    Checking In

    Answer the following questions to check your understanding of conservation issues in the Gulf of California.

    • What are the major threats to the Gulf of California?
    • What recommendations have been made for conservation in this region?

The next several labs will guide you through an in-depth look at some of the human activities and climatic changes that threaten the health and sustainability of marine ecosystems, including those already under protection. You will also be introduced to some of the other ecosystem-based management approaches that are being implemented to help revive precious resources within these ecosystems.