Sardine industries are polluting the Gulf of California
Usually found in the open sea, the sardine is a minor pelagic fish. Besides serving as food for sea mammals, other fish, and seabirds, its nutritional value is very important to human beings - Photo: Alejandro Rocha/EL UNIVERSAL

Sardine industries are polluting the Gulf of California

Enrique Alvarado, Alejandro Melgoza y Andrés M. Estrada
Mexico City
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Fishing industries in northern Mexico are over-exploiting the sardine population and polluting the shore

Within the houses near the beach, outside the village, an unbearable stench that no sense of smell could ever get used to has spread for decades in Guaymas, Sonora. Not even the short, tanned artisanal fisherman José Presiche can handle it for very long.

Presiche, “El Pichi,” took us to the source of the smell at the Sea of Cortés, in the Gulf of California: It was coming from the neighboring port of Empalme, well away from the tourist area. With the help of his laborers, we pushed the boat and navigated waters covered in large grease stains until we came near the fish meal plants, or “purineras.”

There, another fisherman, José Abraham, pointed at the processing plants that handle the oven drying of sardines and eventually turn them into oil fish meals. “They made the mistake of building the fish meal processors inside the bay!” Presiche exclaimed.

Sardine fishing started in 1930-1940 between Ensenada and Cedros Island in Baja California; afterward, it expanded to Magdalena Bay, in Baja California Sur, and in the late sixties, the over-exploitation began, according to the late anthropologist Shoko Doode Matsumoto.

Uncontrolled activity led to a decrease in the sardine population, a key species to the environmental equilibrium, mostly due to the farming industry’s growing demand for fish meal in the cattle fattening process. The business kept growing and China has become its main customer, according to the Ministry of Economy (SE).

Usually found in the open sea, the sardine is a minor pelagic fish. Besides serving as food for sea mammals, other fish, and seabirds, its nutritional value is important to human beings; however, the National Commission of Aquaculture and Fisheries (CONAPESCA) decided to promote the sardine industries by granting subsidies of over 200 million pesos between 2010 and 2017, according to information obtained through Mexico’s Transparency Law. The subsidies brought positive results for corporate leaders, but negative ones for the environment, consumers, and public resources.

Doctor Exequiel Ezcurra, from the University of California, in Riverside, wondered: “How is it logical that we should pay our taxes so that a boat fishes nutritionally rich sardines just so we can give them to cows, chickens, and pigs?”

Mario Aguilar Sánchez, national commissioner of CONAPESCA, replied to EL UNIVERSAL that “fiscal incentives have a direct and positive effect on the final consumer; they work for the protection and benefit of our economy, formed by 130 million Mexicans.” He stressed that flour is mainly used in aquaculture and not livestock, whereas the type of sardine intended for flour production, as is the case with pineapple, is unsuitable for human consumption due to the size of the fishbones.

He claimed that, after several debates at the World Trade Organization (WTO), “experts have yet to reach a consensus in the assessment of the subsidies’ impact. Since they haven’t decided that there is actually a problem, they haven’t taken steps in discussing whether or not certain subsidies should be eliminated.”

Aguilar Sánchez added that, in spite of the pollution caused by waste from the sardine industry’s processing plants in the states of Sonora and Sinaloa, the companies responsible hold a “Clean Company” certificate issued by the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT).

Between the years of 1988 and 1989, fishing efforts (by number of days in which fishing boats were put to use) were highest, though they began declining the following year until reaching a historic low point in the early 1990s. Production went from 300,000 to 7,000 tons, marking the first collapse of the sardine fishing industry.

Ezcurra has identified two causes: Intensive fishing, and the warming of the Pacific in 1992 due to the El Niño phenomenon, which deeply affected the species, since sardines require cold and nutritious water currents in order to breed. Sardines can tolerate changes in temperature, but if you add “extremely intense fishing practices, the drop becomes more tense and the species is less likely to recover fully,” he claimed. “Now we have a six year cycle in which the species rises and then collapses, and that didn’t happen before,” he concluded.

The oscillation periods have become deeper in an exponential curve that will eventually crack, “not only for sardines, but for other species as well,” underlined Octavio Aburto Oropeza, professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, California.

Every year, half a million birds arrive on the Rasa Island in the Gulf, mostly Heermann’s Gulls and elegant terns. Lately, they have had trouble in finding food for their chicks, which has led them to migrate to California, where sardine fishing is regulated.


Northwestern states receive 66% of total fishing subsidies in Mexico

Sonora and Sinaloa are two of the four states which have received most of the economic support provided by the federal government, exceeding MXN$ 7 billion during the period 2008-2015
Northwestern states receive 66% of total fishing subsidies in MexicoNorthwestern states receive 66% of total fishing subsidies in Mexico

The fishing fleet of Baja California, Baja California Sur, Sinaloa, and Sonora comprises 95 ships, according to CONAPESCA. Each of them can store between 80 and 250 tons, operating for more than ten days in each trip. On average, 553,000 tons of sardine are extracted in Mexico every year, which accounts for 42% of national fishing, generating 480 million pesos, according to the National Commission.

But the industry’s real gain is fish meal. 75% of sardine captures go to fish meal production, while 80,000 tons end up in 3 million cans of sardines ever year, according to an analysis by Gonzalo Yurkievich and Álvaro Sánchez, entitled “Territorial Structure of Fishing Activities in Guaymas, Sonora,” (UNAM, 2016).

The Ministry of Economy registered an increase in exports, which reached record levels in 2018. Scientists agree that, while a ton of sardine usually costs 50 dollars, a ton of fish meal can be valued at USD$2,000, though 60% of its biomass is lost in the process.

The MXN$257.5-million subsidies were distributed in order to “modernize ships” (53%), and buy “marine diesel” (47%), neither of which are included in any of the international sustainability agreements signed by Mexico. The state of Sonora received 66% of subsidies; Sinaloa, 22.8%; Baja California, 7.2%, and Baja California Sur, 3.7%. According to León Tissot, a delegate of the National Chamber of Sonora’s Fishing Industry, “the subsidies are not indispensable for the survival of the fishing industry and it is only granted during certain months of the year.”


“Bad and ugly,” fishing subsidies

The investment of the federal government in the fishing industry isn't promoting a sustainable activity, according to experts
“Bad and ugly,” fishing subsidies“Bad and ugly,” fishing subsidies

There are 28 companies that currently receive resources for modern equipment and 50 that use fuel subsidies. The company with the most subsidies is Mazinsa, which has received 41 concessions since the year 2000, according to the Obligations and Transparency portal.

On their website, they claim to be “the most important fish meal producer.” The company belongs to the Pinsa Group, whose chairman is Eduvigildo Carranza Beltrán. The corporate group gained MXN64 million (24.8% of total revenues), producing 35,000 tons of sardine a year –15,000 of oil and 12,000 of whole sardines- through Mazinsa and Sardison.

The second company to receive the most subsidies is the Guaymex Group, with 38 concessions and 28.5 million pesos (11%) through its operating companies Costa Roca Fishing, Matancitas Fishing Products, Ptacnik Fishing, and Ptacnik. Antonio de la Llata, chairman of Guaymex, stated that “without the subsidies, we would be put at a commercial disadvantage in regard to our products, jeopardizing both direct and indirect jobs, as well as tax collection.”

In 2006, sardine companies began an Eco-certification through the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), a non-profit organization based in London which grants them a blue label that is “consistent” with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)’s regulations. The label attests that the company cares for the future of the marine population while guaranteeing supply management.

Louis Bourillón, a representative from the MSC, pointed out that fishing “has undergone a thorough review process,” which still leaves 16 points to be improved. But Ezcurra, who was part of the group of people “interested” in said process, stated that “they had begun to certify sardine fishing even after finding out that it had collapsed. They certified that the fishing of 600,000 tons of sardine a year was sustainable, which is equivalent to filling 20 stadiums with sardines. It is not sustainable under any circumstance.”

Aburto Oropeza added that the certification didn’t include social criteria, such as sardine waste, whose industrial value per kilo (around 20 specimens) is of one peso, whereas artisanal fishing charges one peso apiece.

*This article is part of the science journalism project promoted by Iniciativa DataMares (, which seeks transparency, dissemination, and understanding of information for decision-making processes regarding the sustainability and conservation of the natural resources of the country.


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