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Mexico protects gulf, desert areas
Biological preserves declared by Salinas

By Steve La Rue
San Diego Union Tribune, Friday, June 11, 1993


PUERTO PENASCO, Mexico -- With the Sea of Cortez as his backdrop, Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari added to his environmental credentials yesterday by declaring a 3,600-square-mile "biosphere reserve" in the Gulf of California and creating a nearly 4,000-square-mile preserve in the Sonoran desert.

"We have decided that here ecology has priority over politics," Salinas told about 400 invited guests atop Cerro Prieto, a peak about 15 miles east of this port city of 40,000 on the Sonora coast.

Salinas launched biological studies of the new preserves, saying they "will help us better protect this incredible biological resource."

"Today, we are just realizing what we are at the point of losing," he said.

The Mexican president also privately met with U.S. Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt about international parks and environmental issues along the two nations' 2,000-mile border. Salinas welcomed Babbitt, a former Arizona governor, as "a clear champion of environmental causes."

Babbitt did not speak at the dedication, but in a statement issued earlier he said, "There are lands of extreme value and beauty along both sides of our Mexican border. Both nations have an interest in setting aside some of these lands and in acknowledging the environmental linkages that connect us."

Salinas, as he spoke, had a sweeping view of the gulf's northern tip, where officials say years of overfishing for shrimp and illegal netting of endangered totoaba fish have sharply reduced shrimp catches and brought the totoaba and the vaquita dolphin to the brink of extinction.

"These two species are at the point of becoming extinct, and we do not want that to occur," Salinas said.

The air-breathing vaquitas are snared in the illegal nets along with the totoaba, and the dolphins drown. All fishing now will be banned in a 636-square-mile core area of the gulf's northern corner, from San Felipe on the east coast of Baja California to the fishing village of Santa Clara.

"This will be a reproduction zone for the species that have given economic life to this region," Francisco Mero Sanchez, an oceanographer with the Mexican federal Department of Fisheries, said in a morning radio address here. "This zone is untouchable."

The remainder of the protected biosphere reserve includes waters northwest of a 110-mile line between San Felipe and Puerto Penasco on the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez. Precise rules for use of these waters will be developed over the next year, but it appears likely that sport-fishing will be permitted.

Shrimp drag nets will be banned, and shrimping will be limited to ecologically safe methods that will be developed, said Exequiel Ezcurra, director of Mexico's National Institute of Ecology.

Christopher Croft, marine wildlife coordinator with Defenders of Wildlife, called the gulf reserve "a very constructive first step that should be followed up" by strong enforcement.

The Mexican navy will safeguard the reserve, Mero Sanchez said.

"There are mechanisms now established for inspection and enforcement, and they will be reinforced," he added.

Salinas yesterday also created the 160-square-mile Sierra Del Rosario preserve and the 880-square-mile Sierra Del Pinacate preserve on volcanic desert lands in Sonora, south of Arizona's Pipe Cactus National Monument. The wildernesses are within the new 2,758-acre El Pinacate Reserve.

The president's decrees are the latest in a series of environmental initiatives he has announced amid a debate in the United States over strengthening of environmental elements of the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement, which Salinas strongly favors.

Salinas also visited San Felipe yesterday for an environmental conference with Baja California mayors.