Tourist Trap

Manta ray in the Sea of Cortez...and on local menus in Mexico.

Manta ray in the Sea of Cortez...and on local menus in Mexico. Photo: Paul Ahuja

I spent the last week on the Sea of Cortez with 19 other Aspen Institute Catto Fellows. I was fortunate enough to receive the two-year energy and the environment fellowship along with environmental leaders from all over the world and all professional sectors. Our latest session took us to La Paz.

On our first night in Mexico, I met an old friend, former Heal the Bay educator and marine biologist Paul Ahuja. Paul left the States to go to La Paz to study manta rays, perhaps the most graceful creature in the sea. Paul told me that he identified through photo-documentation more than 50 different individual mantas off La Paz. Within two years there were none. The mantas have not returned to La Paz in three years.

Paul’s theory? Overfishing. He said he saw a mile-long net set up off one of the many islands in the Sea of Cortez, a net of death for all marine creatures unfortunate enough to swim the wrong direction.  I’m not sure I believed that all the mantas disappeared because of overfishing, as they are supposed to taste lousy. (No word on whether my biodiversity-challenged bro has ever eaten manta, but his latest pieces on consuming live octopus guarantee that he’ll be getting lumps of coal from me this holiday season).

On our last night of the fellowship, after four days of sea kayaking, hiking on Cody and Diamond’s islands, discussing works from Plato to Martin Luther King Jr., working on global environmental governance strategies, and snorkeling near sea lions, our group went to a La Paz seafood restaurant called El Aljibe. This was a night of celebration after countless hours discussing the inadequacies of the UN Environmental Programme for environmental protection.

Wine was poured, margaritas were sipped and then the menus arrived. Much to my horror, featured food items included abalone, giant squid (doubtful), octopus, marlin and manta ray. Paul Ahuja’s overfishing nightmare became reality at the dinner table. I guess I should be grateful that sea turtle wasn’t on the menu.

The waiter proudly stated that the owner is an avid fisherman and hunter who serves all of his kills at the restaurant. 

One of the Aspen Institute Catto Fellows, Suzanne Biegel, is one of the owners of the amazing, eco-friendly Culver City restaurant Akasha. I don’t think El Aljibe had an item on the menu that would end up on her menu.

The situation only got worse across the street from the restaurant as numerous local vendors were selling shark jaws to visiting tourists.

Clearly, the challenges of protecting marine biodiversity are felt throughout the planet, even in an area that thrives because of eco-tourism. Now Paul is studying a local whale shark population. For his sake and for the sake of Doc Ricketts’ ghost, I hope whale shark doesn’t end up on the menu soon.

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2 Responses

  1. Eric and I saw a dead whale shark- about 30 feet long- in a net on a beach at Santa Cruz Island. It made me want to hop on the Sea Shepherd’s boat!

  2. You will be pleased to learn that my favorite East L.A. Baja-style taqueria, Tacos Baja Ensenada on Whittier Boulevard just east of Atlantic, has, in addition to what are undoubtedly the best fish tacos in town, pretty good cahuamanta, Sonora-style skate soup. (I have no idea of the provenance of the skate.)

    If it’s any consolation, the Sonora recipe is apparently an adaptation of a traditional recipe calling for sea turtle, which is of course illegal now – not that gill nets differentiate between species.

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