December 10, 2019


By Paula Swiatkowski

Dr. James Ketchum is a shark expert and one of the Hope Spot Champions for the Gulf of California Hope Spot. He co-founded the nonprofit Pelagios Kakunjá, who’s extensive research has contributed to expanding government-designated marine protected areas and other related initiatives. 

When Dr. Earle founded Mission Blue in 2009, the Gulf of California was one of the first locations she designated as a Hope Spot. The selection was based on her recognition of its importance to the global ocean due to its ecosystem diversity and extraordinary productivity.

MB: What has partnering with Mission Blue on these efforts meant, in terms of achieving goals in the Hope Spot?

JK: Partnering with Mission Blue has been critical for the advancement of the marine protected areas (MPAs) here. Dr. Sylvia Earle was a key advocate for the creation of the Revillagigedo MPA. The final touch was when she joined the Mexican President at the event for the declaration of Revillagigedo National Park in November 2017.

Mission Blue has also played an important role in collaborating with us to develop the new MPA in the Southern Gulf of California. Since 2017, we’ve co-hosted a yearly Gulf of California Shark Conference in La Paz, Baja California Sur, to discuss with stakeholders the importance of sharks and the urgency to recover their populations within the Gulf.

We have also worked with Mission Blue and Dr. Earle in Cabo Pulmo, where they have been helping with conservation efforts to get better protection and to reduce current challenges, possibly expanding the existing MPA in Cabo Pulmo. We are deeply thankful to Mission Blue for their support!


The Shark Conference! (c) Brett Loveman


The Gulf’s productivity is ‘wow’-inducing due to the sheer numbers—at over 700 miles long, the narrow Gulf is extremely deep in its central and southern regions, featuring the Pacific Ocean’s deepest hydrothermal vents at 12,500 feet, while the more shallow of its open-sea areas teem with over 800 species of fish, including sharks, that have drawn generations of fishermen. Its waters also support 2,000 invertebrate species and a variety of whales, dolphins, rays, sea turtles, and sea lions. Life-sustaining wetlands and mangroves abound closer to its coasts.

But human activity is threatening the viability of the Gulf—thus its designation as a Hope Spot, where the fight to protect its singular qualities and resources is broad. Overfishing and harmful fishing practices are endemic, while such issues as nutrient reduction, warming sea waters, and coastal development all take a toll.

While the Mexican government began protecting some areas of the Gulf in the 1960’s, numerous other organizations have stepped in to collaborate with— and nudge— it to achieve changes that will help the Gulf rebound.

Mission Blue has led five expeditions there since 2009, bringing attention and advocates to the cause. Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and marine reserves exist, and steps are being urged to bolster the enforcement and effectiveness that could go a long way toward reversing troubling trends. Such actions are proven to have worked in the Gulf—the Cabo Pulmo Marine Reserve, for example—and the case is actively being made for more.

Another key organization in the Gulf is Pelagios Kakunjá, founded in 2010 by Mexican researchers and scientists. Its focus is data collection on shark and other open water species, for use in regional management and conservation strategies. Its two co-founders are also Mission Blue’s Gulf of California Hope Spot champions—Dr. James Ketchum and Dr. Mauricio Hoyos, who both specialize in shark research.

Dr. Ketchum has studied sharks and rays for over 15 years and is considered a specialist on whale sharks in the Gulf of California and hammerhead sharks in the Galapagos Islands. His shark migration research helped fuel the creation of the Revillagigedo Archipelago MPA, which is the largest in North America and is a recently-minted Mission Blue Hope Spot. Dr. Ketchum was kind enough to answer some questions on his work in the Gulf.


Dr. James Ketchum of Pelagios Kakunja and Kip Evans, Mission Blue Director of Expeditions & Photography (c) Pelagios Kakunja


MB: After a 2015 expedition to the Gulf of California Hope Spot, Mission Blue reported the existence of 27 MPA’s, or 8% of the Gulf’s marine area, of which only 1% were ‘no take’ zones where removing living things from the water is forbidden. Policy-wise, has there been movement in a positive direction on these fronts since then? 

JK: There has been progress in that regard due to the establishment of the Parque Nacional Revillagigedo in 2017. However, since 2018 this progress stopped because the new administration is not interested in creating new MPAs in Mexico. With the progress stalled, there are no signs that the Mexican government will do something about it. They just basically closed the door to more MPAs in Mexico.



MB: What role does the nonprofit you co-founded in 2010, Pelagios Kakunjá, play in working with the Mexican government to designate more protections in these waters?

JK: Pelagios Kakunjá played a very important role in the designation of the new MPA Parque Nacional Revillagigedo. Thanks to our studies of connectivity and movement of sharks and mantas within the Archipelago, we were able to design the expansion of the old marine reserve. This became Parque Nacional Revillagigedo.

Besides contributing scientific data to the expansion of the marine protected area in Revillagigedo, we’ve also designed an MPA in the Southern Gulf of California supported with scientific data. We’re still working on the policy part of it; it has not yet been submitted to the Mexican government.

We work quite closely with the government through CONANP (National Commission of Marine Protected Areas) in Cabo Pulmo for the conservation and management of sharks, same in Guadalupe Island, Espiritu Santo Island, and Revillagigedo.


Dr. Sylvia Earle diving in the Gulf (c) Kip Evans


MB: In what ways do you feel hopeful about the efforts to protect the future of the Gulf of California’s ecosystems and marine species?

JK: I feel very hopeful that we can successfully create the new MPA in the Gulf of California, in part thanks to our strong partnership with Mission Blue who has been a key player in creating international pressure on the Mexican government realize how important MPA creation is.

Right now we are going on the wrong direction, so we need to fix that. We feel that in Mexico no one will listen to us, but if we keep partnering with Mission Blue and other international organizations that apply outside pressure, the Mexican government can change their view and look in the right direction—which is to create more MPAs, like the rest of the world.


Dr. James Ketchum

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