The New Economy

The road to Punta Abreojos is paved with hollow intentions

The study, recently completed, is brimming with optimism anticipating healthy harvests and numerous jobs. Because the shellfish harvest from the Pacific is declining and natural resources are being strained, NRDC and IFAW believe creating a sustainable fishery, such as oyster farming, is "a promising alternative" that has "the potential to employ 85 to 100 adults -- a significant portion of the working population of Punta Abreojos," according to NRDC's own proposal for the project. To build the hatchery, NRDC estimates another $200,000 to $500,000 is needed, which it will help the community obtain through grants, donations, loans and other funding sources. Once the design for the project is completed, Hershowitz says his organization will start applying for the money. He says there are international agencies that give money to environmentally sustainable projects such as this one, and NRDC will also petition the Mexican government for some funds, as it has pledged to financially assist the state.

As of yet, there is no money in place to construct the facility.

Nonetheless, oysters, NRDC and IFAW believe, hold the key to Punta Abreojos' environmentally sensitive and lucrative future. "With this hatchery, they could bring in enough income to lessen their impact on other species," Hershowitz says.

Town librarian Angela Garcia says NRDC made promises it hasn't kept.
Susan Goldsmith
Town librarian Angela Garcia says NRDC made promises it hasn't kept.
Anibal Camacho may have to move away from his home to find employment.
Susan Goldsmith
Anibal Camacho may have to move away from his home to find employment.

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In this issue, four New Times writers examine the truth behind a controversial proposed salt plant near the calving lagoons of Baja and how a misguided campaign to save the whales benefited two of the world's largest environmental groups. While government and academic whale researchers struggled to raise the few hundred thousand dollars needed to investigate central problems with the grays' Arctic food supply, green groups raised and spent $15 million to fight the salt plant, even though a panel of leading whale experts found the plant would not harm the whales.

The recovery of the Eastern Pacific gray whale from the brink of extinction is the single greatest turnaround of a marine mammal population, and the whale's myriad connections to human cultural conflicts are no less impressive in their scope.

In New Times' special project "Shades of Gray," reporters from several of our papers have traveled from Siberia to Mexico to tell the complex tale of a creature whose annual migration -- at 12,000 miles round trip -- is the longest by any mammal.

Related stories:
Crying Whale
The Unlikely Environmentalists

Read the entire series

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This fall, NRDC hired one of the fishing co-op members to spearhead the oyster project.

Those familiar with the shellfish business in Mexico aren't optimistic about Punta Abreojos' chances for shucking the oyster market open and sucking out profits. Because of overfishing problems throughout Mexico, lots of others in Baja California Sur have had the exact same idea; currently there are 10 new oyster hatcheries in the state, and the federal government has approved environmental impact studies for another 14 in the same area. So much competition is certain to hinder the economic viability of Punta Abreojos' oyster farm as well as the project's employment prospects.

"When you get too many people rushing into something, there can be too much product on the market," explains Bill Taylor, co-owner of the 110-year-old Taylor Shellfish in Shelton, Washington, one of the largest shellfish farming companies in the United States that grows oysters, clams and mussels. Taylor has been working with several Baja-based oyster farms and is selling oyster seed to Punta Abreojos. He even had his own oyster venture in Baja until this fall when prices began to plummet and a September hurricane destroyed his crop. So many obstacles convinced Taylor to shut the operation down.

Mexico's largest and most successful oyster hatchery -- Sol Azul -- lies just across the bay from Punta Abreojos on the other side of the lagoon, and even without the competition from the 14 new farms, it only employs a skeleton crew.

It isn't just the mass introduction of oyster hatcheries in the state of Baja California Sur that threatens the Punta Abreojos venture. The process for growing oysters is nearly as treacherous as trying to keep a sandcastle from being swallowed by the surf. Oysters are vulnerable each and every step of their growth. Once in their beds in the open ocean waters, animals feed on them, and every few years or so "summer mortality" hits and entire harvests can be decimated by mysterious bacteria and viruses that strike in June, July and August, says David G. Gordon, the author of a soon-to-be-released book, Heaven on the Half Shell: The Story of the Northwest's Love Affair With the Oyster.

"The diseases that hit oysters are very unpredictable," Gordon says. "Growing oysters is like farming. They've got it down to a science, but there's still a lot of uncertainty, and like any other form of farming, entire crops can be wiped out. There are really good years and bad years."

Sol Azul had its entire crop nearly killed off in 1998 by El Niño. But the business survived and is doing well, says Valentin Quintero, the company's marine biologist. However, the company only employs 15 people, and that's before the other growers have started harvesting their crops -- hardly the 85 to 100 people NRDC expects the Punta Abreojos oyster farm will be able to hire. And the fate of Sol Azul's employees -- along with those who might be employed in Punta Abreojos -- is uncertain once all of the 14 new oyster farms in Baja begin competing with the 10 existing operations.

Like the Punta Abreojos venture, Sol Azul is hoping to sell its oysters to the growing U.S. market. But because Mexico lost its Food and Drug Administration certification for oyster export in 1999 because of sanitary deficiencies, that option appears uncertain at best. (Even before the certification was rescinded, only one company in all of Mexico met U.S. standards for importing the mollusks.) To obtain the required certification, the FDA has asked Mexico's federal health and safety agency to ensure that each and every grower do 47 different things to meet the United States' import regulations. "The last conversation we had with them, they told us they were working to resolve the problems," the FDA source explains.

In Mexico, however, things are hardly moving forward. Oyster farmers don't know what it is they're supposed to be doing and have been unable to find out even the most basic information from the agency overseeing the certification process.

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