“I studied to be a technician to solve technical issues, like changing the type of fishing nets that were being used… Nobody had taught me how to understand a culture, how to engage with the community, how to appreciate how they feel and how they live, not just by understanding their language, but all of their expressions. This realization made me grow a lot and see conservation work in an entirely different light.”
I met Alejandro Robles on a sunny afternoon in his countryside home in San Bartolo, Baja California Sur, Mexico. Alejandro and his wife Monica grow their own produce there and have built nature cabins for guests. Their home was welcoming and peaceful, a sweet countryside relief nestled within the giant cacti that are so symbolic of Baja. They normally reside in La Paz, the capital of Baja California Sur. Baja is known for its marine wildlife and ecosystems, it’s often described as an “open air aquarium”.
Alejandro has been working in ocean conservation his entire life. At the tender age of 26 he was on the scientific boat that had one of the first sightings of the vaquita marina in the wild —– the elusive endangered and tiny porpoise that is endemic to the Sea of Cortez.
“The totoaba is a huge endemic fish in danger of extinction and looking for it I ran into the vaquitas. So, I was part of a marine mammal scientific team and I collected the first fresh specimens of the vaquitas back in 1985. Until then the vaquita was virtually unknown, they only knew it existed because of a skull that had been found in 1955, upon which the new species was classified in 1958.”
He then focused on the sustainable management of fisheries, administering the sardine and anchovy fisheries at the national level in Mexico — the basis of the ocean’s food system.
“I was in charge of negotiating the first sardine fishing bans and to stop all juvenile fish catches. That’s when Conservation International arrived in the region and hired me in ‘88 to run The Sea of Cortez program. They were interested in birds and in the islands of the Gulf and sardines were their main food source and I understood what was happening with sardines. Eventually I became their Mexico director working on the protection of the Lacandon tropical rainforest in Chiapas and also in Oaxaca.”
A few years after that, in 2000, Alejandro became Vice President for Mexico and Central America Conservation International (CI) based in their Washington DC headquarters.
“After some years as Vice President of CI in the US, I moved to to San Diego to start Noreste Sustentable (NOS), and in 2008 my wife and I decided to move back to Mexico. We chose to settle in La Paz in Baja California.”
Upon his return to Mexico, Alejandro founded Noreste Sustentable (NOS), an NGO that sought to combat illegal fishing and to protect the vaquita marina.
“In the north of the Gulf, in the towns of Santa Clara and San Felipe, the vaquita was disappearing. So, we started working with the national government to establish a vaquita refuge inside the already established marine reserve and to make certain gill nets illegal. However, I eventually realized that the technical solutions don’t really work if the social fabric of the community is sick. The towns in the north were rampant with drugs, trafficking and illegal fishing. But as environmental NGOs we are not really able to deal with social issues, so we just pretended they didn’t exist and kept lobbying the government to create a marine reserve, but in truth, the society needed help.
“Whilst we were working to create a marine area in the north we also established a citizen watch group against illegal fishing in La Paz. We would show up to the illegal boats and essentially do the police’s work. One day the Marine Admiral noticed our work and told us to call him next time we saw illegal shrimp boats, he promised to send help and intercept the boats. So we did, and he kept his promise. The shrimp boat didn’t even have any licenses and the next day news traveled fast around the bay that illegal shrimping wasn’t tolerated any longer. The illegal shrimp fishing boats stopped after that. And once they stopped we began looking into the local fishermen who had a tendency to fish with harpoons at night, an illegal method of fishing.”
When Alejandro had relocated to La Paz, he leased the NOS office space in an area known as el Manglito, a notoriously difficult community, one of the most violent in La Paz. He found it hard to assimilate into the community, so a neighbour advised him to hire Alicia, a loved local that knew everyone in the neighborhood.
“One day, Alicia was in the office. It was quite funny looking back on it, because we were checking night photographs from the illegal fishing observatory. The photos revealed faces despite the darkness. So we’re all checking the images when Alicia walks in and asks: ‘What is this? Why did you take these photographs?’ I replied, ‘we’re just checking photos of fishermen fishing illegally.’ ‘But it’s my cousin! What does this NGO do exactly?’ I responded that ‘we try to stop illegal fishing.’ Alicia then shouted ‘but everyone in this neighborhood is involved in illegal fishing!’. Unknowingly I had rented an office in the heart of La Paz’s illegal fishing community. For a year we remained in this very tense situation, where the local community didn’t want anything to do with us.
“Then something interesting happened, Alicia’s 20 year old son Omar asked me to help him with his football team. Of course I agreed and told the team I would help if they agreed to fair play rules and to give back to the community in some way or another. They agreed to the conditions and I helped them buy their kits and set up team rules. At the same time my wife and I kept insisting on finding a way to connect with the community, nobody would even say hello back to us. But then, one day, walking around the area we started picking up litter that was on the streets, and everyone started to notice. Without saying anything, they started picking up trash too and giving it to us when we walked by, and this is how our first interactions began. People would show up and say ‘we noticed you like picking up trash, so we collected some for you’. Then, Cano, the captain of the football team came up to me and said ‘you helped us, now we want to help. We want to organize a neighborhood clean up.’
Morre than 50 people showed up to that first clean up. They collected 20 tonnes of garbage and even turned a landfill into a football field.
“This day changed the energy completely. Eventually, we cleaned up the whole neighborhood, organising six clean up days. Once the garbage was dealt with, the group started washing off the graffitis from the walls too. It was almost as though the process had to start on land first to eventually reach the shores.
“Then about a year later, in 2010, we placed the first denunciations of two local illegal fishermen Huber and Guillermo… But by then some people in the community trusted us and encouraged Guillermo and Hubert to come talk to us. So the first discussions began. Back then I was figuring out how to engage in a healthy dialogue to create a shared vision. You know it’s difficult because we didn’t really know how to achieve that dialogue.”
By 2011, Guillermo and Hubert, along with NOS, led the project to recuperate the Catarina clam in the La Paz inlet. The Catarina clam became functionally extinct in the area and had to be brought over from neighbouring coastal lagoons.
“Together, we brought the Catarina clam from Concepcion bay and reproduced them in a lab. That year we planted the first 25,000 clams. Months after we planted them, once they had reached their commercial size, they were all stolen. The theft was in defiance to the project, because they were just thrown away. Interestingly, this really peeved off the local community. Everyone was shocked. ‘This can’t be possible, that was a good project,’ they’d say in the streets.
After the theft, six more fishermen joined Guillermo and Hubert.
“‘We want to join the project too,’ they said. Within a year, instead of 25,000 clams they planted over 500,000, however, again the clams were stolen, but each time there was a robbery, the community would respond more aggressively and more people would want to get involved.”
Five days after meeting Alejandro, I drove to La Paz to meet Hubert at the NOS offices in el Manglito. Huber proudly introduced himself as an ex-illegal fisherman and gave me a wonderful tour of the regenerated area aboard his panga (a traditional Mexican fishing boat). Throughout the tour, Huber opened up about his journey. I could feel his pride and joy as he explained the arduous underwater work.
“For years the community overfished, and the area became overexploited. When my father fished he could take out 40kg of Catarina clams in an hour, whereas I would spend all day trying to find only 1kg. Eventually we tried to look for work elsewhere, going around the whole of Baja fishing illegally. We would be chased by the local coast guards, and we felt like the worst delinquents in the world, but all we really wanted was to survive. Nobody was teaching us how to fish in the best possible way, that was all we knew. We would harpoon at night and the citizen watch group would chase us away. Now the same people that chased us are our friends.
“Initially we thought NOS was out to fuck us. But eventually we realized they weren’t as bad as we thought. We didn’t trust Alejandro at all at the beginning, and he didn’t trust us either, but then the idea was born to recuperate the clams in the bay, and manage it well, and take care of them. So NOS helped us get all of the permits and do an overview of the restoration area. Together we regenerated the whole of the Ensenada area. A few years after the project began, even the turtles and the dolphins came back to the bay.”
The Bay of La Paz is a heavily trafficked shipping area where most of Baja’s resources arrive. La Paz also has a big thermoelectric plant. So it was a truly refreshing experience to witness clean waters, healthy mangroves and plenty of seabirds just a five minute panga ride from the city’s port.
“In 2012, working with NOS, we agreed to stop fishing the pen shell clam in the bay for some years. By 2015, instead of 40,000 clams that we planted, we had 5 million. But then an invasive sponge-like species killed most of our pen shells. That taught us to diversify. So we requested permits to plant several species of clams, establish a sustainable aquaculture of oysters, and also regenerate the mangrove. Today we don’t even mind losing 70% of our clams to birds, because a scientific expert told us that it means that the ecosystem is healthy.”
The Bay of La Paz was dredged in the 1980s to enable ships to dock at the port. The dredging, along with overfishing, caused the slow demise of La Paz’s marine ecosystem, leading fishermen to take desperate measures to feed their families. Today, Huber and Guillermo teach other fishermen in Mexico how to relocate and regenerate clam populations. Recently, Huber’s daughter joined the project, offering tours of the regenerated mangroves as part of a sustainable tourism initiative.
When speaking with Alejandro, he explained the simple act that inspired this transformation.
“You know, what was most powerful for me to witness was to see how the simple changing of a gesture, one that was used to taking from the ocean, instead one day that same hand turned around, and instead of taking gave back to the ocean, restoring an entire ecosystem. I think this was very powerful for the fishers to experience.”
Alejandro’s work with NOS and the Manglito fishing community shows that your worst enemies can turn into your fiercest allies when you listen to their problems with compassion.
“My entire career has been devoted to marine conservation, and my forte has been fisheries management. However, I now know that the key to success is not fixing technical fishing issues but healing community problems.”
The Manglito community was suffering: dependent on fishing for generations, most turned to illegal methods out of desperation, as fish stocks worldwide collapsed due to commercial overfishing. Alejandro managed to win the communities’ love and respect through small acts of compassion, slowly paving the way to a successful collaboration that both regenerated the entire bay and provided a better economic alternative for the fishers who call it home.