One Woman’s Idea to Save a Whale, and Aid a Community

By Glen Martin

Katherina Audley is afflicted by fish fever, but she didn’t contract the dire malady from sautéing a flounder. She was born in Alaska, where the five varieties of Pacific salmon flourish, and all are totemic species for the locals. Alaskans spend what Lower forty-eighters may consider an inordinate amount of time catching, preserving, preparing, eating and thinking about fish. And not just salmon, but halibut, rockfish, grayling, steelhead and rainbow trout, char, northern pike, and whitefish.

“When I was going to school at Cal (BA in Ancient Religion, 1995), I was discouraged that the sport fishing limit [off the California coast] was two salmon a day,” says Audley, “so I went back to Alaska after I graduated and worked the gill-net fishery in Bristol Bay. We caught 80,000 pounds of sockeye salmon, and that pretty much took care of my urges for a while.”

“Fish of all species were abundant. You’d walk out into the surf and they’d slam against your ankles.”

Audley also traveled in other countries after taking her degree, and by the late 1990s she was visiting Mexico regularly, ultimately falling in love with Barra de Potosi, a small west coast village in the state of Guerrero.

“The marine life was incredible,” recalls Audley. “Fish of all species were abundant. You’d walk out into the surf and they’d slam against your ankles, and large fish were common. Also, the seabirds and marine mammals were everywhere. It was remarkable.”

The Guerrero Coast prospered on tourism, especially tourism related to fishing. Sport anglers from around the world flocked the region to engage the big marlin and dorado that teemed offshore. Audley returned often to Barra, but massive and malign changes had befallen the Guerrero coast by the mid-2000s.

“Drug cartel violence in Zihuatanejo and scares over the H1N1 virus in parts of Mexico [though not Guerrero] had driven off the tourists,” Audley says.  “Income levels fell, and to compensate, locals greatly expanded their fishing operations. This was on top of increasing and unmonitored commercial fisheries coming in from other areas. Fish populations crashed.”

But Audley remained devoted to Barra despite its misfortunes, and she got married on the beach near the town in 2009. About eighty guests attended, and she noticed that this temporary influx of people—and the money they brought with them—had a salutary economic effect on the village. Her relatives and friends bought food, art, and handicrafts from Barra’s residents and stayed in local homes. Barra’s families repaired and upgraded their houses, bought school supplies and clothes for their children and paid off debts, says Audley. And that got her thinking in larger terms: how could she help revive Barra’s economy in a stable and sustainable way?

Cetaceans seemed like a good option. Dolphins of various species are abundant in Guerrero’s offshore waters year round, and humpback whales show up every winter to breed and calve. Tourists love whales, of course, and Audley figured organized whale-watching tours were a good way to lure visitors back to Barra. But she wanted to do more than that.

“It turned out that the humpback population that comes to Guerrero had never really been studied before,” she says, “so I wanted to bring in scientists who could produce solid research, and use their findings to increase general interest in conserving Guerrero’s marine resources.”

Thus the Whales of Guerrero Research Project was launched. The program incorporates cutting-edge marine mammal research with ecotourism, incorporating the input of renowned cetacean authorities such as John Calambokidis Cascadia Research and employing local guides and assistants for whale-watching tours.

“We’ve determined that we have a genetically distinct sub-population of about 500 humpback whales in these waters,” says Audley. “Virtually nothing was known about them until we began our research, and we’re helping to fill in a big hole on cetacean data for this part of the world. Our group is going to the Society for Marine Mammalogy Conference in October, and we’re going to present four papers.”

Audley wrote about both her research-cum-ecotourism program for several outlets, and wrote about Barra de Potosi in the travel section of The Oregonian.

“We were surprised—pleasantly surprised—by the response,” she says. “Immediately, all the little hotels and inns in and around Barra filled up. And today, seven years later, we still have people returning because of that one article.”

Still, the success of the program has been based largely on local buy-in, says Audley, and that in turn is predicated on a variety of factors. Project staffers live in Barra, and meet regularly with villagers to discuss their needs, and train local fisherman to become ecotourism guides. They also devote a considerable amount of time to educating local kids.

“We surveyed people in Barra on how we can best help them, and the almost uniform response was to help their kids, to get them decent educations,” Audley says. “So we’re now involved in supporting educations for 2,000 kids in 12 schools. Part of the curriculum involves teaching the children about nature in general and local ecosystems and local species in particular. They live in such a spectacular place, and it’s easy to get them enthusiastic about what’s around them.”

That enthusiasm inevitably spreads to the parents and adult relatives, Audley observes.

“We now have a lot of adults who are involved in our program,” she says. “They bring a lot of experiential knowledge with them, and they also receive training from us. They then can work as guides on our whale-watching tours. Their breadth of knowledge on marine issues is really impressive. Along with a deep familiarity of whales and dolphins, many can identify 275 species of birds.”

Unhappily, Guerrero’s fish populations remain deeply depleted, but Audley is hopeful the situation has reached its nadir, and that things will start improve in the not-too-distant future.

“Unchecked commercial fisheries remain a huge problem, and many locals are also depleting the fish because they’re desperate, they have no alternative means of income,” says Audley. “So we not only need to keep doing everything we can to revive sustainable tourism, we need to ensure that local people have the means and power to manage their own resources.”

Such local control has been established in other regions of Mexico, most notably parts of Baja, where villages have formed co-operative associations to monitor and control local fisheries. Their situations were analogous to that of Barra de Potosi, “but they’ve turned things around, and then some,” says Audley. “Their fish populations have recovered to a remarkable degree, so we know it can be done. We’re planning to sponsor visits for 14 of our community leaders to Baja so they can see what’s being accomplished, and decide how they want to proceed. Then we’ll do everything we can to help them reach their goals.”

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I have seen first hand how this project has brought together a community. And Kat has really gotten the children in the community involved not just with the whales but with making the village more eco conscious.

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