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Baja’s Gulf of California is No Longer a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve – Here’s Why

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Mexico’s Gulf of California goes by many names. The “Sea of Cortés,” for one of the colonizers who explored this area. The “Vermillion Sea,” after the beautiful pink and orange sunsets that are mirrored in the water. Names known since Time Immemorial by the indigenous peoples of the peninsula but which are now lost to the sands of time. Even famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau dubbed it “the aquarium of the world” after seeing quite a lot of the world and its many waters.

Islas del Golfo de California Hero

Whatever you call it, the Gulf of California is a special natural wonder that deserves to be protected. And, for a time, it was recognized as such by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization). Unfortunately, recent changes mean that the Gulf of California – specifically the site known as “Islas del Golfo de California” which encompasses many islands and waterways in the Gulf – is no longer a UNESCO site, and the internet doesn’t seem to know that yet.

I decided to write this post after my friend Ashley flagged me to the confusion she had regarding the site’s status – and by doing my own research which made for a very deep rabbit hole. In the end, I thought it would help to put together a single resource that links to all the sources that trace how and why the Islas del Golfo de California lost its UNESCO status, and what’s next for this incredible region.

In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Comom’ti-pa (Cochimí), Guyacura, Ko’lew (Kiliwa), Kumeyaay/Kumiais, Monqui, Paipai (Akwa’ala), Pericú, and Xawiƚƚ kwñchawaay (Cocopah) peoples. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

Islas del Golfo de California as a UNESCO Site

Before getting into the story of why the Islas del Golfo de California is no longer a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, it helps to understand the history of the site before that.

I won’t go all the way back to the geologic history of the Gulf of California, but needless to say, it’s a unique ecosystem on our planet, and one that earned Cousteau’s praise due to its incredible biodiversity and varied ecosystems. For this reason, UNESCO named the Islas del Golfo de California a “Biosphere Reserve” on the list of World Heritage Sites in 1995 (source).

World Heritage Sites come in all different kinds, broadly categorized as “cultural,” “natural,” and “mixed.” In the case of Biosphere Reserves like Islas del Golfo de California, the primary focus is nature and UNESCO works to help protect the natural resources, environments, and species; specifically, UNESCO states that “UNESCO biosphere reserves seek to reconcile human activity with the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.” (source)

Specifically, Islas del Golfo de California’s biodiversity cannot be understated: encompassing 244 islands and surrounding waterways, this region is “home to 695 vascular plant species, more than in any marine and insular property on the World Heritage List. Equally exceptional is the number of fish species: 891, 90 of them endemic. The site, moreover, contains 39% of the world’s total number of species of marine mammals and a third of the world’s marine cetacean species.” (source) You can’t find a better marine and island ecosystem region in the world.

In any case, Islas del Golfo de California is still on the map of UNESCO sites today – but you might notice that its dot is red. It is the only UNESCO site in Mexico that makes that unfortunate list, so let me explain more.

Islas del Golfo de California as a World Heritage Site in Danger

Islas del Golfo de California - Vaquita
Photo courtesy of NOAA

World Heritage Sites – including Biosphere Reserves – can be listed as “in danger” by UNESCO if there is some factor that threatens the criteria which put it on the list in the first place. Only 16 of the 55 sites in Danger come from the “Natural” category of sites, which gives some insight into the threats that affect UNESCO sites in different categories.

For example, all of the UNESCO sites in Syria (all of which are Cultural) are currently listed as “in danger” due to the ongoing conflict in Syria and the fact that ISIS was systemically destroying heritage sites as part of their military campaign (source). Another example is the Rainforests of the Atsinanana site in Madagascar, a natural site that is threatened by deforestation and poaching (source).

Coming back to Baja, Islas del Golfo de California was named as a site “in danger” in 2019; UNESCO determined that imminent extinction threats to the vaquita (a porpoise endemic to the Gulf of California) necessitated aggressive action to reduce illegal gillnet fishing in the Gulf. There are roughly 10 members of the entire vaquita species left in the world, all in the Gulf of California.

As part of that initiative, UNESCO’s Rapid Response Facility issued funds to a local organization, Museo de Ballena y Ciencias del Mar, to assist in literally cutting and collecting gillnets when they are found.

That was in 2019. By the end of 2020, UNESCO listed Islas del Golfo de California as “withdrawn” from the Biosphere Reserve list:

Islas del Golfo de California Biosphere Reserve Withdrawal

What happened?!

After a lot of research, I discovered in a single news source: Mexico asked for the site to be withdrawn:

Islas Del Golfo De California Withdrawal Statement
Source (A source that I really struggled to find despite being a UNESCO press release!)

So UNESCO didn’t kick Islas del Golfo de California out – Mexico asked to leave. (This is apparently not uncommon: some 44 of the 308 Biosphere Reserves in North America & Europe are listed as “withdrawn.” (source))

Why Would Mexico Withdraw Biosphere Reserve Status?

As with most things where large geopolitical forces are at play, we mere plebeians rarely get to see the whole picture. Honestly, I’m not sure why Mexico chose to withdraw Islas del Golfo de California from the UNESCO database – nor am I sure why it has been three years and UNESCO still hasn’t updated their database.

My guess is that the intensive involvement of UNESCO by providing funds for gillnet cutting and collection played a role. Possibly also the pandemic, which Ashley guessed would have impacted local economies in the Gulf of California and may have incentivized the government to allow more “free-” market fishing opportunities, even if the tools being used (gillnets) were illegal.

At this point, I’ve reached out to the UNESCO contact for Mexico Biosphere Reserve sites for comment and will update this story when/if I hear an official response.

As for UNESCO’s ineptitude at managing its website and spreading no-longer-accurate information (can we call it misinformation?), I have no clue. UNESCO is a huge organization with the capability to update its site more than once every five years; heck, there’s a story from 2021 acknowledging that Mexico is now in full control of the situation with any UNESCO/RRF support they want to keep the vaquita from going extinct… but no mention of Mexico’s request to remove the site from the list (source).

I’ve also reached out to UNESCO inquiring as to when they plan to remove the Islas del Golfo de California pages from their site (as they’ve done for other withdrawn sites in the past) or at least update them with a note that the site was withdrawn in 2020.

Should You Visit this Former Biosphere Reserve?

Islas del Golfo de California - Panorama

Let me be clear here: the fact that Mexico withdrew Islas del Golfo de California from the list of UNESCO Biosphere Reserves does not diminish its natural importance on our planet, nor reduce the threat to vaquitas and other species affected by illegal gillnetting in the northern part of the Gulf.

There is still lots of work to be done to protect
“the aquarium of the world” and all the species in it.

So should you still visit different destinations within Islas del Golfo de California? Of course! Please do! Local economies all along the Gulf are supported by tourism and that’s a powerful force for good when we use it properly.

What can we do to help put those dollars and pesos to good work? Here are two important pieces:

  1. Book all tours with local, licensed tour companies that observe the rules about wildlife and nature interactions. This issue was brought to my attention because (of Ashley, and) of snorkeling with sea lion pups at Los Islotes in Espíritu Santo National Park. Make sure you choose a company that operates sustainably.
  2. Look especially for tour companies that have been in business since before 2019, as they’re more likely to act in accordance with UNESCO recommendations. This is obviously no guarantee, but it’s a good guideline to try and ensure your visit is aligned with UNESCO’s goals for human/ecosystem protection – even though Islas del Golfo de California is no longer a UNESCO site.
  3. Avoid eating totoaba, the species which motivates fishermen to use gillnets in the first place. Without jumping down another rabbit hole, fishermen seek out totoaba due to the sale of its swim bladder in overseas consumer markets (source). Reducing demand for this fish will help disincentivize gillnetting in the first place; Mexico is also doing its part by catching and punishing poachers (source).

I’d also welcome any other ideas you have for supporting the vaquita and protecting all that makes Islas del Golfo de California special; let me know in the comments below.

Additionally, I have a number of posts about traveling in on the Baja peninsula, which I’d encourage you to check out in my Baja travel guide.

I hope this post helps you understand why such a special place – basically the entire Gulf of California – was once a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve but can no longer be called that. If you have any questions about why the Islas del Golfo de California (Gulf of California) is no longer a UNESCO site, please let me know in the comments!

Help others discover this post too!

I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

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