An Ocean Apart

for Virginia Quarterly Review

(For the full article, click here)

Twenty-two miles off the rugged coast of Baja Sur, Mexico, just north of Magdalena Bay, I’m huddled in the back of a fifteen-foot panga with Guarepo Lucero and his nephew, Kin Kin, as they check the shark lines they baited the night before. The wind has picked up since then, and now the waves are crashing over the gunwales of our tiny craft, soaking us with frigid seawater. The skiff pitches from side to side, and all the while my two companions keep hauling sharks into the boat.

“Whoop!” shouts Kin Kin. “Heeya!” They’ve got another one on the line. For the Luceros, it’s been a great day. Their panga is stacked with half a ton of shark—from a three-foot juvenile mako to an eight-foot blue half as long as the panga itself. Both men are grinning ear-to-ear. Guarepo is a hulking man whose massive arms and intense stare are at odds with his carefree, boyish attitude. He heads a folk band in his spare time and, as I consider throwing up in his boat, he happily sings a mariachi tune against the wind. Finally we pull up alongside the struggling shark. Guarepo yanks on the line, grabs a wooden truncheon, and begins to beat the fish, scolding it whenever it snaps at his hand. Finally the shark stops fighting, and Guarepo hauls it—convulsing, tail whipping back and forth—into the skiff and onto the pile.

This remote corner of Baja is both unforgiving and inspiring—an austere landscape well suited to desperados and epic tales. And on a small island, tucked in against a lazy estuary, is the Cabo San Lázaro fishing camp, where the Luceros and a handful of other fishermen stay in a series of simple shacks, cobbled together and barely keeping out the Pacific breeze. To reach the camp, you must drive to a quiet pueblo three quarters of the way down Baja California, take a boat across the estuary, then drive another thirty miles at low tide down a sprawling beach littered with whale bones, then over a dirt road that takes you past a lighthouse straight out of a romance novel. Craggy mountains line the northern end of camp, and a long series of dunes stretches away to the south. Between them, a slow, shallow river connects a small pocket of marshes to the sea.

I’ve come to this isolated part of Baja to better understand the dramatic decline of one of the ocean’s most loved and feared inhabitants. Over the last decade, marine scientists have been sounding the alarm about plummeting shark populations. Up to 100 million sharks are caught by fishermen every year. By some measures, commercial fishing has led to a decline in the population of certain large shark species by more than 95 percent. Experts believe that the scale of these hauls is unsustainable, and that without strict policies to protect them, many of the biggest, most recognizable sharks could disappear from our oceans, devastating the ecosystems they help to regulate.

Two cultural forces drive this trend, one related to supply and the other to demand. On the supply side are the Luceros, men who follow their passion and tradition onto lethal and increasingly unprofitable waters. The small-scale fishermen of San Lázaro don’t catch nearly as many sharks as large commercial boats farther out to sea, but they can have an outsized effect on populations by catching juveniles and pregnant females closer to shore. More importantly, though, the fishermen here represent the cultural heart of the Mexican shark-fishing trade. If the countries providing shark are to manage the fish sustainably, they must begin in places like this.

The demand side, meanwhile, lies on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, where booming economies meet ancient traditions, and where a family’s hopes for its future are boiled down into a bowl of soup. As China has grown into its role as a dominant global economy, culture and conservation have come crashing together. And unless something changes, sharks may end up just another casualty to a growing national appetite.