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Gulf of California Project (PANGAS)

Case Authors

Cristina Villanueva Aznar, Duke University, and Heather Leslie and Leila Sievanen, Brown University

Download PDF of Comprehensive Case Study


PANGAS is a long-term interdisciplinary study of small-scale fisheries in the northern Gulf of California that began in summer of 2005. To address knowledge gaps and enhance understanding of this system, the University of Arizona received funding from The David and Lucile Packard Foundation to develop the partnership of academic institutions and non-government organizations from Mexico and the United States. The goal is “to develop and test an interdisciplinary framework for ecosystem-based research and to translate […] findings into management of small-scale fisheries and policy outcomes,” according to the 2008 Packard Proposal.

The Gulf of California is located in northwestern Mexico between the Baja California Peninsula and mainland. It is the most important fishing region in Mexico, accounting for approximately 50 percent of national fishery production, and it is a chief supplier of seafood to the southwestern United States and East Asia. It is also considered one the most productive and diverse marine ecosystems in the world.

Because of its biological significance, the Gulf of California is one of the most closely watched marine systems by the global conservation sector. In the northern gulf, there are conflicts between fisheries management and marine conservation, predominantly fueled by growing coastal communities and a significant increase in the size and operations of the small-scale fishing fleet.

With this increase in effort, the northern gulf has seen territorial conflicts develop over access to fishery resources and a decline in production of species targeted by small-scale fishers. Small-scale fisheries management problems in this region have been attributed to past approaches’ failure to consider broad ecosystem influences and insufficient understanding of structure and connectivity of marine fishery populations. Understanding feedbacks between biophysical and human processes is a key component of successful small-scale fisheries management.

Overall, PANGAS may be characterized as an ecosystem-based fisheries management project focused primarily on generating basic baseline scientific information, building local capacity and involving government authorities in the development of better fisheries policies that promote sustainable use of resources exploited by artisanal fishers.

MEBM Attributes

  • Complexity: The performance of small-scale fisheries is a result of interacting bio-physical and social processes, which need to be understood to allow for effective management.
  • Scale: By working towards healthy, resilient small-scale fisheries they will move towards healthy coastal marine ecosystems.


Mission and Primary Objectives


The PANGAS project was initiated in 2005 to promote sustainable exploitation of fisheries resources by artisanal fishers in the northern Gulf of California, Mexico by generating a scientific understanding the system, building local capacity and enhancing government involvement in the development of better fisheries management policies.

The ultimate goal of the initiative is “to develop and test an interdisciplinary framework for ecosystem based research and management of small-scale fisheries in the upper [Gulf of California]."


As part of this overarching goal, PANGAS identified the following main objectives:

  • To conduct a general characterization of small-scale fisheries in the northern Gulf of California.
  • To develop an in-depth and integrative interdisciplinary approach for research of small-scale fisheries management systems.
  • To engage key stakeholders and decision makers for advice and implementation of the project’s results and recommendations.
  • To use the information generated to develop management recommendations and inform policy makers.
  • To provide training for students and local fishers in tools for ecosystem-based research, management, and conservation of marine resources.

Key Parties

Lead Organizations

The organizations leading this effort include:

  • University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources is primarily responsible for managing grant funding and providing central coordination for the project. In the first two phases, graduate students did the majority of the analysis on the data collected resulting in four Phds and two Master's degrees.
  • Centro de Investigación Científica y de Educación Superior de Ensenada (CICESE) is in charge of research projects on physical oceanography, developing coupled biological-oceanographic models, and co-development of connectivity matrices and bathymetric studies.
  • University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) focused on developing the framework for the coupled biological-oceanographic models, conducting research in molecular genetics and trace elements, and assisting in capacity building for subtidal monitoring. 
  • Comunidad y Biodiversidad, A.C. (COBI) conducted the rapid appraisal to characterize the fishery, led efforts in capacity building for subtidal monitoring, incorporated PANGAS results into fishery ordinance plans and species specific management plans, and provided outreach to policy makers. 
  • Centro Intercultural de Estudios de Desiertos y Océanos, A.C. (CEDO) participated in the rapid appraisal, developed management plans for the species mentioned using PANGAS data, and built capacity among fishers for catch monitoring.
  • PRONATURA A.C. joined PANGAS in 2008 and is responsible for compiling information for, and writing, the regional management plans for snappers, groupers, and sea cucumbers, developing the Plan de Ordenamiento for the Bahía de los Ángeles Biosphere Reserve, and leading efforts in catch monitoring protocols.

Key Parties

In addition to the six research institutions and non-governmental organizations that are leading this effort, key PANGAS partners include:

  • Fishing cooperatives and permit holders
  • The fishery commission CONAPESCA
  • The commission for Natural Protected Areas CONANP
  • United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Fisheries Service
  • University of California San Diego SCRIPPS Institution of Oceanography
  • The Nature Conservancy


Program Structure

The PANGAS effort is an interdisciplinary, multi-institutional and bi-national project. It is a consortium of three research institutions and three non-government organizations (NGOs) from Mexico and the United States that bring together expertise from different fields to address ecosystem-based research and management of artisanal fisheries.

  • The research institutions are mainly responsible for providing scientific information and are heavily invested in creating coupled biological-oceanographic models, understanding population structure using molecular genetics, marine spatial planning using GIS, ecological connectivity in the region, and performing studies on social networks.
  • The NGOs play a more operational role by providing technical field support; organizing meetings with the advisory committee, stakeholders and government; compiling information and developing regional management plans for species targeted by small-scale fisheries; and creating Planes de Ordenamiento (management plans) for three different areas. The NGOs have also participated in different PANGAS-supported programs such as a subtidal monitoring program and fishers’ logbook and fisheries monitoring program, and they have been instrumental in providing regional policy outreach.

Motivations for Initiating Effort

The main impetus for the PANGAS project was the need to mitigate the collective impact of small-scale fisheries on marine environments in the northern Gulf of California, Mexico. Artisanal fisheries are the most prevalent fisheries in this region and are predicted to grow.

At present, thousands of pangas (i.e., small scale fishing boats) operate in this area - targeting over 70 species of fish, mollusks, crustaceans and echinoderms on a regular basis - and each panga is capable of carrying between 1 to 2 tons of catch.

Because these fisheries are not directly or technologically coupled to the extraction of a particular species and can easily shift as targeted species are depleted or market demands change, there have been production declines for most targeted species. At the time the project was initiated in 2005, there were no sound management policies for small-scale fisheries in the gulf in part because of insufficient information and understanding of the social-ecological system.

In the case of the northern gulf, although there have been considerable research efforts within the social, biological, and physical sciences to address various issues pertaining to small-scale fisheries, most of this data has historically been dispersed and research has been uncoordinated  and non-integrative. The PANGAS EBM initiative proposed to integrate disconnected knowledge sources in order to identify and carry out research to fill important gaps in understanding and design an interdisciplinary research and management framework for small-scale fisheries in the northern Gulf of Mexico.

Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

The Gulf of California is 1,130 kilometers long and 80 to 209 kilometers wide, covering an area approximately 230,000 square kilometers.

  • A variety of coastal and marine habitats are found in the gulf, ranging from tropical mangrove forests and coral reefs to hydrothermal vents, and its climatic conditions range from temperate to tropical. The gulf’s pelagic waters are renowned for supporting abundant marine life, including 665 species of marine flora and at least 5,969 named faunal species and subspecies.
  • The northern portion, which is the focal area of the PANGAS project, is one of the gulf’s most biologically productive regions, characterized as very shallow and an inverse estuary, given the high evaporation rate and scarce freshwater input from rainfall and the Colorado River. This area is separated from the rest of the gulf by an archipelago and several sills.
  • The gulf region as a whole comprises approximately a quarter of the Mexican territory and over 8 percent of the total population. While population density in the northern portion is still low, demographic growth in the area is higher than the national average.
  • Nine percent of Mexico’s gross domestic product (GDP) is attributed to the gulf region, primarily fisheries, tourism and port activity. It accounts for approximately 50 percent of national fishery production - generating over 50,000 jobs and involving about 26,000 boats, of which 90 percent are small-scale boats also known as “pangas.” Small-scale fisheries use gillnets, hooks, lines and traps to exploit approximately 70 species of bony fish, elasmobranches, mollusks, and crustaceans for an annual catch of nearly 200,000 tons.


Despite its economic importance, the government has limited capacity to deal with fisheries management and enforcement. In addition, corruption, growing immigration to the coast and the substantial cost for fishers to organize and participate in collective-action processes have promoted a de facto situation of open access.

Furthermore, several threats affect management/conservation targets in the northern part of the Gulf of California, including:

  • The diversion of the Colorado River flow.
  • Lack of defined management schemes for rocky habitats.
  • Insufficient scientific understanding of populations’ connectivity and life histories.
  • Overexploitation of target species.
  • Coastal development.

Major Strategies

The overarching approach of PANGAS has been “to translate research to the development of policies and management actions,” according to the 2008 Packard Proposal. Five main strategies have been used to address key threats to PANGAS’ conservation targets and fulfill the project’s goals and objectives:

  • Develop Regional Fisheries Management Plans: These plans are intended to address insufficient existing regulations, the open access situation and general lack of knowledge of the system.
  • Develop Specific Fisheries Management Plans: As with the regional fisheries management plans, the intent is to address the lack of and/or inadequate regulations for individual fisheries, the open access situation of fisheries and meager understanding of the system.
  • Establish Monitoring Program and Increase Technical Capacity in Monitoring: The rationale for this strategy is to better address compliance with existing regulations and the need for economic alternatives, and to increase the knowledge base.
  • Build Capacity for Students And Managers/Decision Makers: The intent is to create a lasting cohort of scientists and managers working towards ecosystem-based management and marine conservation.
  • Develop Population Models: An additional strategy employed by PANGAS has been to develop models of population dynamics that reflect population connectivity of species targeted by small-scale fisheries in order to predict how they will respond to different levels of extraction.


Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

PANGAS has created a suite of indicators to monitor and evaluate project progress. These indicators are divided into six categories and are summarized as follows:


  • Enough additional funds to cover all salaries of personnel and continue to develop a plan for Phase III of the project that will allow it to continue for 3 more years.

Development of Management Plans

  • A signed formal collaborative agreement with the government.
  • Complete research necessary to provide recommendations for government to develop first drafts of regional management plans for blue crab, penn shell scallop, octopus, and several species of reef fish. 
  • Blue crab management plans approved by government and stakeholders in 2012.
  • Two fuly developed coupled biological-oceanographic models for two proxy species.
  • Complete analysis of applicability of Planes de Ordenamiento for proposed sites.
  • Run operational ATLANTIS model for sites of interest.
  • Complete first drafts of Planes de Ordenamiento for three sites.


  • Clear protocols for long-term monitoring of fisheries catches.
  • At least 10 people trained in subtidal monitoring of rocky reefs.
  • Two research cruises to establish a baseline for the health of the rocky reefs of the Northern Gulf.
  • A collaborative agreement with the National Commission on Protected Areas (CONANP) on monitoring within existent marine protected areas in the region.
  • Incorporation of data gathered in the field via monitoring into management plans.
  • Catch monitoring programs established in three regions of the study region.
  • A transferable protocol and data management system for monitoring.

Capacity Building

  • Four students to have completed their PhD studies.
  • Two students to have completed their master’s studies.
  • Five students selected for marine conservation genetics course.
  • Twelve commercial divers trained and participating in subtidal monitoring.
  • Community members trained and employed to monitor catch in at least three communities.

Coordination Meetings and Outreach

  • A preliminary communications strategy for PANGAS and a refined web page.
  • Submission of papers for publication.
  • Comprehensive outreach program with CONANP and INAPESCA.



During Phase I of the project, the project team focused on generating baseline information to better understand the region’s small-scale fisheries and the processes that govern their performance.

Team members also focused on establishing monitoring protocols, training graduate students and local fishers, and establishing partnerships with government entities and concurrent regional research and conservation initiatives. In Phase II, they are focusing on developing management guidelines. In terms of outcomes, the PANGAS project has been very successful at producing scientific information and creating a professional network that has enhanced capacity to achieve PANGAS’ goal and objectives. In particular, PANGAS’ accomplishments include:

Peer-Reviewed Research Papers

Production and publication of peer-reviewed research papers, including, but not limited to:

  • Connectivity in the northern Gulf of California from particle tracking in a three-dimensional numerical model. By Marinone, S. G.; Ulloa, M. J.; Pares-Sierra, A.; Lavín, M.F.; Cudney-Bueno, R.
  • Establishing a Baseline for Management of the Rock Scallop, Spondylus calcifer (Carpenter 1857): Growth and Reproduction in the Upper Gulf of California, Mexico. By Cudney-Bueno, R.; Rowell, K.
  • Prediction of sea surface elevation and currents in the Gulf of California: scales from tides to seasonal. By Marinone, S. G.; Gonzalez, I.; Figueroa, J. M.
  • Rapid Effects of Marine Reserves via Larval Dispersal. By Cudney-Bueno R.; Lavín M. F.; Marinone S. G.; Raimondi P. T.; Shaw W. W.
  • Lack of Cross-Scale Linkages Reduces Robustness of Community-Based Fisheries Management. By Cudney-Bueno R.; Basurto X.
  • Governance and effects of marine reserves in the Gulf. By Cudney-Bueno R.; Bourillón L.; Saenz-Arroyo A.; Torre-Cosío J.; Turk-Boyer P.; Shaw W.W.
  • The unintended consequences of formal fisheries policies: Social disparities and resource overuse in a major fishing community in the Gulf of California, Mexico. By Cinti A.; Shaw W.; Cudney-Bueno R.; Rojo M.
  • Effective ecosystem based management must encourage regulatory compliance: A Gulf of California case study. By Ainsworth, C.H.; Morzaria-Luna, H.; Kaplan, J.C.; Levin, P.S.; Fulton, E.A.; Cudney-Bueno, R.; Turk-Boyer, P.; Torre, J.; Danemann, G.D.; and Pfister, T.
  • Insights from the users to improve fisheries performance: Fishers' knowledge and attitudes on fisheries policies in Bahia de Kino, Gulf of California, Mexico. By Cinti, A.; Shaw, W.; and Torre-Cosio, J.
  • Integrating the spatial and temporal dimensions of fishing activities for management in the Northern Gulf of California, Mexico. By Moreno-Baez, M.; Cudney-Bueno, R.; Orr Barron, J.; Shaw, W.; Pfister, T.; Torre-Cosio, J.; Loaiza, R.; and Rojo, M.

Other Accomplishments

Other accomplishments include (PANGAS First Annual Report 2006):

  • A spatial and temporal GIS database characterizing all small-scale fishing activity in the northern Gulf of California.
  • A field research protocol manual for the PANGAS project that is useful for anyone conducting large-scale interdisciplinary marine EBM research.
  • The first characterization of the physical oceanography and ecological conditions of the Upper Gulf of California including the vaquita refuge.
  • Completed a baseline study characterizing the ecosystem health of the rocky reefs of the northern Gulf of California.
  • Extensive information about population structure and dynamics using molecular genetics for several important commercial species.
  • An interactive project website:
  • Development of the first population connectivity models for the northern Gulf of California.
  • Development of numerous regional maps with information on such things as sea surface temperature, bathymetry, surface currents, location of rocky reefs, and key coastline sites as known by fishers.
  • Development of one of the first comprehensive regional management plans for a fishery in the northern Gulf of California: the rock scallop fishery. This plan is endorsed by the federal government and it incorporates the use of harvest refugia, seasonal closures, and size limits, among other management tools.
  • Establishment of a fishing concession for commercial divers of Puerto Peñasco, assigning exclusive fishing access rights and enhancing stewardship for management of benthic resources and the use of marine reserves.
  • Development and implementation of a two-week training course in coastal oceanography and marine ecosystems for Mexican and U.S. students, paired with Duke University.
  • Collection of extensive baseline information on each fishery and community of the northern gulf.
  • Development of species-specific management recommendations
  • PANGAS encouraged to develop Planes de Ordenamiento in the region, especially for to protected areas and a biological corridor.

Factors Facilitating Progress

Factors that have facilitated this effort include:

  • New Fisheries Law: The new Sustainable Fisheries and Aquaculture Law in Mexico is striving to promote a more holistic view of fisheries management and consideration of environmental impacts, and it is exploring ways to decentralize management. Such objectives are congruent with EBM principles.
  • Progressive Individuals within Agencies: Some Mexican fisheries management authorities have a more progressive attitude than in the past as demonstrated by the head of the Fisheries Research Institute (INAPESCA) promoting EBM in the gulf and the Commission on Fisheries and Aquaculture (CONAPESCA) implementing a catch shares pilot project for fisheries management.
  • Increased Human Capital: Over the past few decades there is an increased rate of practitioners with masters and PhDs, which has enhanced acceptance and facilitated implementation of new and sophisticated management approaches such as EBM.
  • Collaboration: Collaboration among the government, NGOs and other stakeholders has facilitated EBM as it is enabling work that historically would not have been pursued to be accomplished.
  • International Conservation Interest: At present, there is a lot of interest among funding agencies in the Gulf of California, which means there are more opportunities to acquire resources needed for EBM-related activities.



Challenges to this effort have included:

  • Translating Science into Policy: Translating science into policy has been difficult because political and economic considerations are often prioritized over ecological concerns in this context.
  • Lack of Capacity and Ability to Enforce Regulations: In Mexico, government agencies lack financial and human resources necessary to ensure compliance and engage in enforcement activities, which limits their ability to ensure fisheries are exploited sustainably.
  • Poverty: It is difficult for conservation strategies to gain traction in a context where poverty is pervasive; the population is primarily concerned with providing for their families.
  • Lack of Information: There is not enough basic information on the life history of species, their critical habitat, or catch data for small-scale fisheries to inform management decisions; there are not enough interdisciplinary efforts to gather information on all relevant topics.
  • Lack of Input from Multiple Disciplines: Integrating knowledge and information from multiple fields has been challenging, and, in the Mexican context, scientific research is dominated by the natural sciences.
  • Lack of Formal Mechanisms to Integrate Findings into Government Processes: The process by which a non-government or academic institution can contribute towards fishery management plans or ordinance plans are unclear and poorly defined.
  • Resistance to Change: It has been difficult to break away from “business as usual” to adopt marine ecosystem-based management, which is an innovative management approach that is more sophisticated than current fisheries management practices.
  • Institutional Arrangements: Several institutional factors are hindering EBM implementation, particularly a de facto situation of open access to fisheries in the gulf and the fact that enforcement authority belongs to three agencies that do not always communicate and marine protected areas and fisheries are managed by different departments.
  • Insufficient Infrastructure for Using Scientific Findings: Currently, Mexico does not have the institutional infrastructure to receive the scientific information being generated by the EBM effort and apply it to relevant policy-making processes.


Lessons Learned

The first five years of the project have taught its implementers key lessons:

  • Importance of Establishing Information Pathways: It is important to establish mechanisms and pathways through which information can be compiled and flow from researchers and community members to relevant government agencies for use in management decisions before large amounts of data and knowledge accumulate.
  • Mismatches between Student and Project Timelines: While engaging graduate students in the generation of important information helps build capacity, the timeframes in which student projects are completed and information is needed to inform management decisions do not always coincide.


Website Links


University of Arizona School of Natural Resources and the Environment (UA) PANGAS:

Centro de Investigación Científica y Educación Superior de Ensenada, Baja California (CICESE):

University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) Institute of Marine Sciences:

Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans (CEDO):

Comunidad y Biodiversidad, A.C. (COBI):

Pronatura Noroeste, A.C.: