It was the first day of his job as a tour guide, but it didn’t take long for Francisco “Pancho” Lucero, 47, to show us something beautiful. Within two minutes, Lucero had steered his 23-foot boat over what I assumed was an amorphous shadow until the image fractured into 50 individual Mobula rays, moving in unison, 30 feet beneath the surface off Ensenada de Muertos.
The sea along the southeast coast of Mexico’s Baja peninsula last December was shimmering blue glass. The desert shore was dotted with a growing collection of second homes, built on the bones of dead pirates—hence the name, Bay of the Dead. This area is best accessed from a network of paved and dirt roads that unspool south from the port city of La Paz, past groves of saguaro cactus and through the fishing pueblo of Agua Amarga, where the Lucero family has lived for five generations.
The Lucero men once traveled by oar and sail and caught scalloped and smooth hammerheads in the bay. Shark meat was consumed by local families, and shark liver oil was used as medicine. Fins were exported to Hong Kong as early as the 1930s, but that wasn’t the primary economic driver for fishermen in southern Baja. Then, in the 1970s, outboard motors arrived, around the same time that global demand for shark fins intensified. Now a variety of shark species are caught miles offshore, and while the meat still stays local—it’s sold for pennies—dried fins are exported to Hong Kong at a price of $500 per kilogram (roughly 2.2 pounds). A kilo typically includes fins from over 20 different sharks.
Lately, Lucero has had second thoughts about his line of work. It’s bloody, dangerous, and, due to dwindling shark numbers, pays less and less each year. He still catches sharks but envisions something different—something more—for his children. Which is how I wound up chartering his boat with marine biologist Frida Lara, 31, and photographer Porfiria Gomez, 34, the daughter of noted Mexican environmentalist Mario Gomez. For months they have visited pueblos and fishing camps up and down the state of Baja California Sur, trying to convince men like Lucero that sharks are worth more alive than dead.
Lara and the younger Gomez are based in La Paz, where Lara earned her master’s degree in marine biology, at the University of Baja California. In addition to her scientific work, Lara leads pelagic trips. She charters boats so her guests can glimpse and swim with big animals. Such unpredictable open-water safaris have long been a staple of marine biology fieldwork and in recent years have grown increasingly popular among ocean lovers around the world, especially free divers. La Paz is one of the best places to do it; thanks to a confluence of equatorial and arctic currents, the Gulf of California is an oasis of biodiversity, and on a given day it’s possible swim with sea lions, dolphins, rays, sharks, marlin, and even orcas.
Last summer was a good season for silky sharks. Each June they arrive from Revillagigedo National Park, the largest marine protected area (MPA) in Mexico, to give birth. It’s forbidden to fish for silky sharks throughout their two-month-long reproductive period, and Lara spent a magical afternoon among 30 of them at a seamount off Espíritu Santo Island in late July. The hunting season reopened on August 1.
“When we went back a few days later, there were no sharks,” she said. “Either they’d already started migrating south or they were dead.”
Despite dozens of national bans on imports and exports, finning is still decimating shark populations. The two biggest shark fin markets—Hong Kong and Guangzhou, China—sell out almost as quickly as supply comes in, and the animals are hunted relentlessly in seas across the globe.
Silky sharks are among the most sought-after for shark fin soup, and there are at least 80 fishing camps and pueblos along the coast of Baja. In Baja California Sur alone, there are 24,000 small-scale fishermen like Lucero who hunt sharks with simpleras—baited hooks on a line attached to anchored oil drums filled with foam. It’s been estimated that the world’s overall shark population has declined more than 70 percent since the 1970s. And when you remove apex predators from the marine environment, you quicken the degradation of coral reefs and seagrass beds that help make the ocean an effective carbon sink and climate stabilizer.
Lara, who spent two years researching shark migration patterns off Mexico’s Socorro Island, refuses to fault men like Lucero. After the fishing season recommenced in August, she and the younger Gomez spent time with Agua Amarga’s local fishermen, filmed them as they worked, and learned that they are being exploited to do the often hazardous work for millionaire exporters.
After viewing their footage, Mario Gomez, who in 2017 helped convince then Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto to create Revillagigedo National Park, asked local women to partner with him in a new effort to create the world’s largest MPA. Known as the Calcetine (“sock” in Spanish), it would encompass 2,200 kilometers (1,367 miles) of open water, spanning the entire southern half of the Baja peninsula, from Loreto on the Gulf coast to Magdalena Bay on the Pacific. It wouldn’t be a no-take zone or impact fishermen like Lucero who work in small boats that lack storage capacity, but it would end industrial fishing in all of Baja California Sur.
As we motored up the coast, we spotted a pair of humpback whales and stopped for a long dive session along a stunning reef, and on our way back, Lucero shared the beats of his typical workday. Each morning at six, he motors 30 miles out to sea to check his simpleras for scalloped hammerhead, blue, and silky sharks, but occasionally he finds a 600-pound, 15-foot mako dangling from a hook. Recently, a friend of his attempted to pull a heavy shark into his boat by the gills, lost his grip, and sliced his forearm on the dead shark’s razor-sharp teeth. He almost bled out on the long, frantic ride to shore.
Lucero arrives home at around 3 P.M. for lunch but returns to the sea by sunset to fish for tuna and jackfish, which become shark bait. His workday doesn’t end until 10 P.M. Days off are dictated by the wind, because single-engine pangas are powerless to fight the strong gusts that kick up from the hot desert. Three years ago, a neighbor’s engine failed. The wind pushed the men in it out to sea, and they were presumed dead until an oceanographic expedition found them, adrift, nine days later. Lucero’s reward for all the hard work and risk? Roughly $150 per week.
Nevertheless, when Lara first approached Lucero and his neighbors with alternatives to shark fishing, alarm bells sounded. “I was very doubtful,” he said. “We were all very doubtful.” But 2021 had been abysmal on the water. Shark numbers were meager for the second year in a row, and the sizes of the catch were smaller than usual, so he listened as Lara relayed a story about the dive resort of Cabo Pulmo, farther south. It was a fishing village until 1995, when the waters all around it were declared a national park. Today it’s a diving haven known for giant schools of fish and bull sharks. The original fishing families of Pulmo are now affluent enough to educate their children overseas.
Even more relatable was the development of nearby La Ventana, which has become a magnet for divers and snorkelers hoping to glimpse the annual aggregations of Mobula rays, which descend on the coast south of La Paz by the thousands each spring. La Ventana boat captains make more than Lucero’s weekly pay in a day, often grossing $700 before gas and boat expenses. Some locals have opened restaurants. Others have built small inns.
While at sea, Lucero has watched rays perform aerials from his fishing boat, with nobody else around. He’s motored among whales, dolphins, orcas, and sharks often enough to learn their habits and hideaways, and he knew Lara was right when she suggested that, in this part of the Gulf, the spectacular sights were possible any time of year. All he and the other local fishermen had to do was be open to sharing it.
Lara and Porfiria Gomez have cofounded a nonprofit called Orgcas with their friends. Its mission is to help shark fishermen make the transition into tourism. They facilitate funding for new boats built for tourism, book guests, and help captains adjust to the new gig through mentorship and training. “Fishermen know the water better than anybody else,” Lara said. “They just need to learn the safest and most effective way to approach wildlife and get comfortable with tourists.”
When Mario Gomez mentioned the possibility of an industrial fishing ban in Baja California Sur, Lucero was convinced. Tuna boats from Ensenada or mainland Mexico sail to southern Baja to deploy drift nets that sink down to 50 feet and can extend for miles. “They get more tuna in one take than we get in months of fishing for bait,” Lucero said. The bycatch can be horrifying, too. Lara documented one drift-net incident in which 100 silky sharks were killed.
The commercial and industrial fishing sectors have succeeded in convincing sport and fishermen worldwide that MPAs are a threat, when they’ve actually been proven to increase fish counts, fish size, and biodiversity. Intact ecosystems are also more climate resilient, which is why dozens of countries have pledged to protect 30 percent of their land and sea from development or industrial exploitation. The Calcetine could meet Mexico’s marine-preservation obligation with a stroke of current Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s pen.
Whether or not the Calcetine dream materializes, the budding partnership between Agua Amarga fishermen and Orgcas bears watching. Tourism accounts for two-thirds of southern Baja’s GDP. Half of that—the fastest-growing sector—revolves around marine biodiversity. Think: whale-watching, diving, and sportfishing. Could adventure tourism help the Lucero family flourish? Will other shark fishermen follow suit? If so, how long might it take local shark numbers to rebound?
We didn’t manage to swim with orcas or sharks that morning, but that’s how pelagic trips go sometimes, and anyway, it was winter back home, while here the water was blue and warm, the sun shining, and the scenery spectacular. After our tour, Lucero invited us for lunch in his garden. He served fresh triggerfish ceviche and mahi-mahi sashimi, prepared by his 24-year-old son’s close friend who works as a chef at La Ventana.
“After they came to talk with us, I got hooked by the idea,” Lucero said of his conversations with Lara and Porfiria Gomez. “I couldn’t stop thinking about it.” He glanced at his son, Fran, a bright, aspiring entrepreneur who has watched La Ventana’s rise with keen eyes and has big dreams for his own hometown. “I want to go into tourism, because that is the future.”