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The story of a small marine park in the southern tip of Baja California, Mexico, is a beacon of hope for the world of shark conservation. Cabo Pulmo was once a rich reef ecosystem, replete with colorful fish and large ocean predators. But as the region’s waters were aggressively fished for much of the 20th century, the fish went away and local fishing communities suffered. Conservationists reacted by reaching out to the local fishing community, and in 1995 successfully lobbied the government to establish the Cabo Pulmo National Park, a marine protected area covering 27 square miles of Cabo Pulmo reef. Life came back to the reef, and with it a new tourism industry, which helped replace local jobs. Fusion’s environmental correspondent Nicolas Ibargüen traveled to Cabo Pulmo to explore how conservation can spur ecotourism, and ultimately help save the ocean’s top predators.

"Cabo Pulmo represents a success story…and it's a very good example of how you can do things,” explained James Ketchum, director of conservation for the NGO Pelagios-Kakunjá. When Ketchum began researching the health of marine populations in Cabo Pulmo about 20 years ago, there were no sharks in the area. But now, with the protections in place, fish have come back, including sharks. “It took about 10 years for the top predators to come back, including sharks and large predatory fish like Groupers and large fish schools as well…having sharks here is a sign total recovery,” explained Ketchum.

Cabo Pulmo.
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The return of marine life also brought tourism to the area, which then presented local residents with new streams of income. “There's two kinds of tourists that come visit Cabo Pulmo: ones that just want to see the fish and the beauty of the corals…the other… is the shark tourist,” said Ketchum. “And that’s quite good…because they are paying money to see the sharks and that puts a lot of value on the sharks, to keep them alive for a place like this.”

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Although the reef has made a successful transformation from fishing grounds to tourist destination, not everyone originally believed that such a transformation would be possible. “I wasn't that convinced that this was a good place for a marine park because it's very isolated and…the people that lived here at that time were fishermen,” explained Hector Reyes-Bonilla, professor of marine biology at the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur. “It's very difficult to convince fisherman to…change their way of life, so we started talking with them and eventually they started buying into the idea that it should be good to change… then more or less at the same time some people came trying to go and dive…and they [the fishermen] started noticing that this could be a good way to continue their life.”

One of the big turning points in the preservation of Cabo Pulmo came from the fishermen themselves. The Castro family, a prominent fishermen family from the area, began to notice that the decline in the region’s fish would have huge impacts for the future viability of the community, and agreed with conservationists that something had to be done. It was partially because of them that the community rallied around the idea of the park. Even though the community largely agreed with the idea of the park, the transition was still difficult for the area’s fishermen. Francisco Javier Castro-Lucer, a member of the Castro clan, remembers how difficult it was in those first few years to make ends meat: “It was a little hard at first, you have work you do during your entire life and then to change it is difficult,” he explained. But as tourists began to visit the park, Castro-Lucer found other sources of revenue; he co-founded the Cabo Pulmo Sport Center, a dive shop that caters to the growing ecotourism trade.

“It’s an in investment in the long term that pays off for future generations,” said Castro Lucer.

Shark Tourism will premiere on Fusion TV on June 8th at 10pm ET.