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How fishing cooperatives in Baja California weathered marine heat waves

A study of fishing cooperatives and independent operators in Baja California offers lessons for the development of equitable climate adaptation policies across the world.

Fishers retrieve a net near La Paz on the Gulf of California coast of Baja California Sur, Mexico. (Image credit: Leila Sievanen)

Groups of fishers organized into cooperatives are able to bounce back from short-term environmental shocks like marine heat waves, according to a recent study of fisheries on the Pacific Coast of Baja California, Mexico. 

But the increasingly common practice of cooperatives in this region and others to specialize in harvesting just a few kinds of highly valued invertebrates like lobster, shrimp, and crab could make it harder for them to adapt to longer-term impacts from climate change. 

“These insights can guide climate adaptation policies by helping to identify the types of fishing businesses that are most vulnerable and the conditions that build resilience, while providing a model for other geographies,” said study co-author Fiorenza Micheli, the David and Lucile Packard Professor in Marine Science and chair of the Oceans Department in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability.

Coastal communities worldwide are challenged by the impacts of climate change, including rising seas, reduced access to working waterfronts, shifting ranges of economically important species, and rapidly changing technologies and economic conditions.

“Climate variability and change in ocean ecosystems create challenges for fisheries’ sustainability, both economically and environmentally,” said lead author Timothy Frawley, PhD ’19, a former postdoctoral scholar in Micheli’s lab who is now affiliated with the Fisheries Collaborative Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center.

For the new study, published Feb. 9 in Global Environmental Change, the researchers synthesized information on how and what people fish throughout northwest Mexico and how those behaviors shifted in the face of warming ocean conditions. Some of the fishers in the study belonged to cooperatives, while others worked as independent owner-operators or as part of businesses backed by private capital from fisheries patrons. 

The regular “fish-tickets” through which fishers are required to report their harvests to the Mexican government provided the researchers an opportunity to examine fishing strategies and revenue during a period with unusually severe marine heat waves, between 2012 and 2016, compared to a reference period 2006–2011.

“Though Mexico’s large and iconic fishing cooperatives had low revenue variability in the short term, we found that their degree of specialization may undermine their resilience as climate change progresses,” said Frawley, who worked as a commercial fisher in New England and along the U.S. West Coast prior to beginning his academic career.

Large fishing cooperatives, which are granted exclusive access to high-value species by the Mexican government through area-based concessions, were less likely to shift target species or change fishing strategies in response to short-term heat waves than the more flexible fisheries patrons, which tended to rely upon a greater diversity of species. 

In the long term, fishing businesses owned by fisheries patrons may be better positioned to opportunistically harvest species that may migrate to the region, driven from their historical ranges in search of food and habitat, while negotiating with the “boom and bust” of certain species associated with increasing climate variability. According to the study authors, this dynamic is already playing out across Baja California, where private owner-operators can rapidly pivot to harvesting migratory sharks, squid, and jellyfish. 

The study authors conclude that in order for large cooperatives to remain competitive in the face of long-term climate fluctuations, particularly in remote regions without government oversight, they will need to decrease their dependence on single fisheries, diversify fishery markets and harvest portfolios, and invest more in alternative industries like aquaculture and tourism. 

This story was adapted from a press release originally published by the University of Maine.

Micheli is the co-director of the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions and a senior fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment. She is also a professor, by courtesy, of biology at the Stanford School of Humanities and Sciences.

This study is part of MAREA+, a long-term interdisciplinary project focused on the environmental and human dimensions of small-scale fisheries in the Gulf of California region. The study was funded by the National Science Foundation and based on more than 10 years of fisheries data collected by fishers and curated by the Mexican government.

Media Contacts

Marcus Wolf

University of Maine
207 581 3721

Katie Jewett

Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability

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