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Puerto Penasco Community Fishery

Case Authors

Jennifer Lee Johnson, Julia Wondolleck and Steven Yaffee, University of Michigan


Puerto Penasco in Sonora, Mexico is the largest community in the northern Gulf of California and borders one of the most ecologically important areas of the world. The community’s economy relies almost exclusively on the health of its fisheries.

In 2006, the Mexican government issued a formal fishing concession to a subsector of the fishery. The concession gave Puerto Penasco’s dive fishermen exclusive access and management authority over portions of the rock scallop fishery.

The decision followed nearly a decade’s work by the fishermen to manage the dive fishery through an informal, but effective, community-based structure. Those efforts included the creation of no-take Marine Protected Areas in 2002. Staff turnover at the federal fisheries office in Puerto Penasco hampered enforcement of the MPAs.

Puerto Penasco’s fisheries, particularly the small-scale dive fishery, provide the best example of what one researcher calls the “rapid evolution of community-based management practices” in the region.

Puerto Penasco’s experience also demonstrates the importance of collaborative research, establishing Marine Protected Areas and the need for cross-scale linkages to other fishing communities and layers of government.

MEBM Attributes

  • Collaboration: Desire to create partnerships between fishermen and scientists.
  • Complexity: Use of science to improve the protection of the ecosystem.


Mission and Primary Objectives

The mission of the marine ecosystem-based management activities in Puerto Penasco, Mexico is to create a sustainable, small-scale fishery.


Key Parties

Lead Organizations


  • Puerto Penasco Dive Fishermen

Non-Governmental Organization

  • CEDO

Key Parties

  • David and Lucile Packard Foundation
  • Georga A. Binney Foundation
  • International Community Foundation
  • Mexican Government Fisheries Office in Puerto Penasco
  • Sandler Family Foundation
  • Tinker Foundation, Inc.
  • University of Arizona Researchers
  • World Wildlife Fund – Mexico Program


Program Structure

Marine ecosystem-based management in Puerto Penasco, Mexico evolved through informal ties between fishermen, scientists of the non-governmental organization, CEDO, and scientists at the University of Arizona.


Motivations for Initiating Effort

An increase in the demand from Asian and other markets led to an increase in the harvesting of snails in the early 1990s. By 1992, around 600 metric tons of snails were harvested for export by Peurto Penasco fishermen, double the historical catch in the entire state of Sonora. By the late 1990s, fishermen noticed a decline in mollusk stocks, especially snails and scallops.

In 1998, fishermen from the dive sector began working with a local non-governmental organization, the Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans, or CEDO. They wanted to better understand and manage the resource.

Collaborative science with fishermen and CEDO researchers on the reproductive ecology of the black murex encouraged the divers to impose a voluntary year-long prohibition on harvesting the snails and then seasonal closures to protect spawning snail stock. Their actions included a temporary no-take reserve around San Jorge Island in 2000.

Collaborative research showed densities and individual sizes had increased. Unfortunately, the fishermen had no legal authority to enforce the boundaries of the no-take reserve, although they had successfully petitioned the government to impose seasonal closures in 2001.

Small-scale fishermen from outside Puerto Peñasco heard of the increase in stocks and began harvesting scallops on San Jorge Island. Frustrated at their inability to enforce their community-based regulations in the absence of government support, fishermen from Puerto Peñasco again begin fishing on San Jorge Island.

By 2002, Puerto Penasco fishermen reconvened and decided to work to once again reinstate a Marine Protected Area, but this time with exclusive access rights. With the help of CEDO and researchers from the University of Arizona, the dive fishermen established a network of three MPAs, including one at San Jorge Island that includes about 20 percent of Puerto Penasco’s traditional fishing grounds, or about 8 square kilometers. The reserve, however, was not enforced.

Ecosystem Characteristics and Threats

The Ecosystem

Located in Sonora Mexico on the shore of the northern Gulf of California, Puerto Penasco was not inhabited until the 1920s. The gulf is the only inland sea in the Eastern Pacific. Despite high levels of biodiversity and sustained conservation attention, integrated ecosystem management is not being practiced.

The northern gulf experiences dramatic changes in the temperature of surface waters and the community structures of plants and animals. El Nino and La Nina have strong impacts on ecosystem function.

The west coast of the gulf is rocky with a narrow continental shelf. The east coast is dominated by alluvial plains. Tidal pools in Puerto Penasco are a major tourist attraction, where a variety of marine life can be found at low tide. 

The gulf supports 36 species of marine mammals, including the endemic vaquita, a small porpoise that is considered highly endangered. Five of the seven existent marine turtle species inhabit the gulf, along with important species of sea birds.

Divers from Puerto Penasco have harvested snails, pen shells, scallops, clams, octopus and reef fish, such as groupers and snappers, from the rocky reefs and sand flats in the region. The community has an active fishing fleet of 230 small-scale boats and 120 shrimp trawlers, and a growing tourism industry.


Among the threats to the marine ecosystem of the Puerto Penasco region are:

  • Hypoxia and harmful algal blooms that kill marine organisms.
  • Pesticides, including DDT, from irrigation systems and polluted wetlands foul the waters.
  • More than 20 dams along the Colorado River greatly reduce the supply of fresh water to the Gulf of California.
  • Increased tourism will likely result in greater pollution-related problems if development is not managed.
  • Shrimp trawling in the gulf damages habitat, disrupts the ecology of the area, and kills non-targeted species.
  • Overexploitation of fish places significant stress on the gulf’s fish stocks.


Major Strategies

Marine ecosystem-based management in Puerto Penasco, Mexico involves the following strategies:

  • Collaborative Science: Collaborative science provided the rational for action and monitoring its effects. The efforts involved dive fishermen with researchers from academia and the non-governmental organization CEDO.
  • Protected Areas: In 2006, the Mexican government gave the dive fishermen exclusive rights to their rock scallop fishing grounds. With CEDO’s assistance, the fishermen developed a management plan, seasonal closures and habitat protections. Divers retain their concessions as long as they fish according to the rules in the management plan.   


Monitoring, Assessment and Evaluation

CEDO has trained 70 percent of Puerto Penasco’s dive fishermen in underwater sampling methods and to participate in the monitoring of important commercial species.

CEDO extended its efforts throughout the northern Gulf of California region through its PANGAS ecosystem-based research and management program. PANGAS is Spanish for “small fishing boat” and as an acronym is translated as “Artisanal Fishing in the Northern Gulf of California: Environment and Society.” With university and NGO partners, CEDO is working to understand the connections between biophysical and socio-economic processes in the coastal fisheries to develop integrated management approaches.



The ecosystem-based management efforts in Puerto Penasco, Mexico have achieved the following accomplishments or impacts:

  • Secured exclusive rights for dive fishermen to fish in the rock scallop grounds.
  • Developed a management plan outlining seasonal closures and protections on habitat.
  • Training of dive fishermen to monitor the resource.


Factors Facilitating Progress

Marine ecosystem-based management in Puerto Penasco, Mexico was facilitated by a number of factors, including:

  • Connection to the Crisis: The close relationship between divers and their resources made fishermen aware of the decline in stocks, provided motivation for protection and local control, and provided local expertise to facilitate scientific data collection. This knowledge buttressed the formation and maintenance of the reserve network. 
  • Ability to Measure Success: The rapid recovery of mollusk stocks and the ability to measure that recovery showed how the marine reserves could benefit the community and helped to ameliorate concerns of immediate economic losses with the promise of future gains.
  • NGO and Foundation Support: CEDO and the dedication of scientists at Arizona State University, helped generate funding for collaborative research and management, raise awareness and liaise with fisheries officials at various levels. Foundation support helped to finance this important work.
  • Recognition: The 2003 National Conservation Award from Mexico’s National Commission of Protected Natural Areas and the Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources did not give fishermen the initial support they anticipated, but contributed to the government’s decision to grant them exclusive access rights to the rock scallop fishing grounds.



Marine ecosystem-based management in Puerto Penasco, Mexico faced a number of challenges, including:

  • Lack of Cross-Scale Linkages: A lack of cross-scale linkages between community-based management structures and higher levels of governance limited the ability of Puerto Penasco’s fishermen to enforce their community-based fisheries regulations. 
  • No Formal Authority: Without formal recognition and enforcement by government agencies of the closures, new entrants from outside Puerto Penasco entered the mollusk fishery after they heard reports of rebounding stocks.  
  • Personnel Turnover: Personnel change at Puerto Penasco’s fishery department resulted in a change of strategy and a loss of institutional knowledge about the dive fishermen’s conservation efforts. These institutional difficulties eroded local confidence in the success of the management efforts and the health of the resource. 


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