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As far back as Roberto Mata can remember, there have been oysters. Since he was nine years old, Roberto says, he has spent his mornings and afternoons popping open the shells of the briny mollusks that, year after year, draw tourists from all over Mexico to his hometown of Boca de Camichín. And, he adds, it was thanks to those oysters that he became so talkative—a skill that would help him achieve everything he has today. Knife in hand, little Roberto would sit next to the diners at his family’s open-air beachside restaurant and open the mollusks in front of them. In that way, he could show how fresh the seafood was while asking and answering as many questions as possible. “Never for obligation,” he says, “but for joy.” Today, Boca de Camichín is known as the oyster capital of the state of Nayarit for good reason. Dozens of stalls and restaurants with colorful facades line the entrance to the town. Shells adorn murals and hang on colorful ribbons to frame sand-floored gazebos.
“The Marismas Nacionales region hosts the largest and most intact stretches of Mexico’s mangroves, and it is still relatively healthy because it continues to receive water from the upper part of the San Pedro Mezquital River basin,” says biologist Víctor Vázquez Moran, director of the protected area.
The hydrodynamics of Marismas foster the growth of mangrove forests in its more than 500 square miles (approximately 133,000 hectares) of largely natural landscape and coast. The trees help regulate the climate, capture carbon dioxide, and act as natural water filters. They serve as a natural barrier against hurricanes and as nurseries for hundreds of species. The region is a vitally important human landscape as well, with more than 800,000 people relying on the benefits provided by the San Pedro Mezquital River.
In fact, the importance of the ecosystem services provided by the region to the entire Mexican Pacific coast led to its declaration as a Natural Protected Area in 2010.
And from the youngest to the oldest, the inhabitants of Boca de Camichín know that their subsistence depends entirely on the health of the reserve’s rivers, lagoons, mangroves, and marshes. WWF is committed to supporting their efforts to protect and improve their lives.
At 8 am the bell rings at Boca de Camichín’s elementary school. While the children go to class and the restaurants prep for the day, dozens of oyster farmers board their boats and head for the estuary where the San Pedro Mezquital River flows into the Pacific Ocean. There, 500 harvesting rafts float almost static, surrounded by mangrove trees as far as the eye can see. On the horizon, the ocean swells.
It is the interaction of salt water and freshwater that allows mangrove forests to thrive and gives Boca de Camichín’s oysters their particular, sought-after flavor. In this quiet estuary, mangrove roots help maintain the perfect balance between salinity and freshness. The plants also harbor phytoplankton and generate the oxygen that oysters need to grow.
Oyster farming underpins livelihoods—not only for Roberto’s family and the more than 30 people who work at the Matas’ restaurant, but also for the families of the 176 members of Ostricamichín, a local fishing and aquaculture cooperative. Around a third of the town’s population—including multiple members of the Mata family—is involved with mangrove-dependent oyster aquaculture year-round.
“It’s a family job. Everyone gets involved,” says Ostricamichín’s president, Pedro Alfonso López. At the beginning of the season, the sons and daughters of the partners work on making sartas (long ropes on which around 30 mother shells are placed and where new oysters will begin to grow). In the following months, the wives and sisters monitor the oyster larvae as they grow to the size necessary for sale.
As the Ostricamichín families grow, needs also increase, explains López. This is why in 2017 the members of Ostricamichín started a small smoked oyster enterprise that will allow them to access new markets. Although they still need financial support, López is optimistic: In the newly built factory, all the oyster waste will be reused, reducing loss and improving production. “The plan is to make the business even more sustainable than it already is.”
Nevertheless, the past few years have been difficult for the cooperative. In recent seasons, the hydrological conditions have changed, affecting mangrove health and water quality. As a result, oyster production has declined: This coming season, the cooperative expects to harvest only 800 tons of oysters, when in the past they have brought in around 1,300 tons. “And with that,” López says, “half of the jobs could be lost.”
The impact of human activity along the 336 miles of the San Pedro Mezquital River is breaking the balance that the entire Marismas ecosystem needs to survive—and it helps explain the drop in oyster numbers.
One of the most severe problems is water sequestration— the removal of water from a natural system, like a river or lake, for purposes ranging from agriculture to aquaculture to human consumption. Another is the illegal construction of shrimp farms in the lower parts of the basin. In the biosphere reserve alone, Moran explains, there are 7,413 acres (3,000 hectares) of shrimp farms. And, while there are regulations in place to make their operations more sustainable, new production units continue to open illegally.
These unregulated, unsustainable farms siphon massive amounts of water from the river. Once the shrimp are harvested, the dirty water is deposited back into the river, dragging with it an excess of organic matter that ends up taking oxygen away from the mangroves, fish species, and mollusks that live in the lower river basin.
Since 2010, the National Commission for Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) and other federal agencies have been working to make shrimp farming more sustainable. In addition, the reserve’s management is constantly monitoring Marismas to ensure that no new production units are established that have not complied with the law.
It’s essential to connect the dots between upstream water impacts and coastal ecosystems. The interdependence from zone to zone is high, says Ricardo Domínguez, water reserves officer for WWF-Mexico. “What happens in the upper and middle basin always has repercussions downstream.”
About 20 years ago, the Matas’ restaurant began to feel the impact of declining fisheries. Realizing they would need another source of income, Roberto’s uncles, Julio and Eligio, and his father, Santos, started an ecotourism business they named Ecomata.
Roberto wanted in, so he took it upon himself to expand his understanding of tourism. At the University of Guadalajara, where he studied alternative tourism, he realized that his youthful experience guiding tourists through the mangroves and out to see whale sharks meant he could take his skills to any number of distant, tourist-heavy locations. But he never changed his plans: “I studied tourism,” he says, “to stay in Boca de Camichín, because I knew there was much to be done.”
His time away made him notice how things in Marismas were changing more than ever. “There is less rain and more hurricanes,” Roberto says. “But the mangroves continue to protect us,” he adds with a smile.
In the past three years, several cyclones have hit the Pacific coast, with both immediate and long-term impacts on Boca de Camichín. Residents say that the storms are increasingly hitting farther north, along the central coast of Marismas, and that this change in weather patterns is accelerating the flow of sediment downstream.
Claudia Teutli Hernández, ecological restoration specialist at the Center for Research and Advanced Studies (CINVESTAV), explains why this matters: Although the transport of sediment from the upper to the lower part of the basin is important because it carries with it nutrients necessary for ecosystem health, excess nutrients have a serious impact on the mangrove system.
When sediment accumulates, she notes, the wetland veins that carry water to the mangroves get clogged, and the mangroves don’t have the flooded periods they need to grow. The result? Some mangroves are drying out.
Understanding the implications of these water flows led WWF to develop hydrological monitoring maps of the lower-middle stretch of the river. The data helps communities, and partners like WWF and CONANP, identify where to implement assisted natural regeneration plans in coordination with the communities and the federal government.
In Francisco Villa—an upstream community where ill-advised water projects led to massive mangrove die-offs—resident Óscar González and other inhabitants use shovels to clear waterways and open canals to allow the water to reach the mangroves and let the little sprouts grow again. “Francisco Villa is a shrimping community, and without the mangroves,” says González, “we would have nothing.”
The Mata family has noticed another change in the ecosystem: invasive species. Just as excess salt water degrades the mangroves, excess freshwater affects the natural balance. When there is too much freshwater—often the result of torrential rains in the upper basin—the door opens to other threats, such as the proliferation of non-native species in the wetland.
On a boat tour deep within Marismas’s natural, mangrove-lined channels, Julio Mata, a gregarious, playful guide, stops the engine and points quickly to the right. A long branch hugs the mangrove foliage, and although it seems to adorn it, the reality is different. “There’s the tripa de zopilote,” Julio says.
The plant that drapes the mangroves, also called a princess vine, is invasive. As freshwater infiltrates normally brackish areas, tripa de zopilote absorbs the freshwater and grows over the mangroves, preventing the endemic plants from carrying out the photosynthesis process. In essence, what looks like a lace drape over the mangroves is actually cutting them off from the nutrients they need. And when the newcomer gets big enough, it weighs the mangroves down until they are submerged.
A few meters ahead, a dry islet stands in the water. Like the princess vine, the seeds of common reeds have arrived from the upper basin and lodged among the mangroves, stealing nutrients and gaining ground.
Although the data is not exact, CONANP staff estimate that between 750 and 900 acres of mangroves have been invaded. Eradication programs have been implemented, but they need to be consistent to tackle the problem. “You clean,” says Rosario Medina, one of the inhabitants of Boca de Camichín who has worked on the programs, “then come back after 15 days, and the vines are back again.” Eradicating invasives is just one area where WWF may increase local support.
In 2014, the work of the National Water Commission, WWF, and CONANP led the San Pedro Mezquital to become the first river in Mexico with a water reserve decree that secures water for human consumption, the environment, and energy generation for public use.
Because of the mangroves’ extreme dependence on water balance, it’s necessary to link their conservation with the water reserve’s goal of protecting the river basin’s ecological balance and flows, says WWF’s nature-based solutions coordinator Pilar Jacobo. “If we don’t ensure that the water coming from the upper basin of the river continues to arrive, the restoration plans will be useless.”
The last stop on the Ecomata tour—after seeing oyster farmers in action, looping through miles of striking green mangrove walls rife with bird life, visiting an island community with brightly colored colonial buildings, and scanning the ocean for wildlife—is a biodiversity hotspot called Vuelta de Barreto. Rafael Mata, Julio’s son and Roberto’s cousin and perhaps the quietest member of the Mata clan, is the first to get off the boat. He knows the place well.
He points to the tree where he, his father, and his grandfather, Rafael “El Güero” Mata (for whom he is named), used to sit down to rest after spending hours fishing in the reserve. Past the tree, a short path leads to a wide-open, packed-soil clearing that’s important to one of Rafael’s present-day occupations: monitoring jaguars.
In 2008, a group of residents alerted CONANP that they had sighted footprints of what has become the reserve’s flagship feline: the jaguar. This species had not been monitored for more than 50 years because for a long time the Marismas Nacionales region was a hunting area; most people believed the big cats were locally extinct.
A year later, CONANP formed a monitoring and surveillance group made up of experts and people from different parts of the reserve who had previous experience and useful skills for the job, and Rafael was among them. Thus, “Jaguarundis” was born.
In 13 years of work, the Jaguarundis staff of 10 has monitored 36 jaguars using camera traps and estimated their size and weight by modeling the tracks left by the cats in the wetland mud.
Rafael reaches down and frees a plaster cast of a jaguar’s paw. It’s larger than his hand. “I’m going to keep doing this as long as time permits,” he says.
The monitoring work carried out by CONANP, nonprofits, and the Jaguarundis is a great opportunity to advance WWF’s larger jaguar conservation strategy, which aims to secure a continental network of landscapes where jaguars, their habitats, and the ecosystem services they provide can survive well into the future. Places like Vuelta de Barreto and Marismas provide much-needed connectivity between priority areas for the big cats.
“Without the communities, we can’t do the work,” says Gabriela Delgadillo, a CONANP field technician who helps guide the Jaguarundis’ work. She clutches a binder filled with camera trap images of jaguars and tells story after story of how knowing where jaguars roam has helped reduce human-wildlife conflict and drive conservation plans. “Community input is the foundation on which the sustainable use of resources is based.”
Because of mangroves’ critical value to people, wildlife, and the climate, WWF launched the Mangroves for Community and Climate (MFCC) project in late 2020. For more than a year, consultants and WWF staff have conducted conversations and interviews with residents of coastal communities such as Boca de Camichín to gain an understanding of local peoples’ immediate needs and of the conservation and restoration initiatives that can be strengthened to protect the ecosystem on which they depend.
The five-year project also seeks to reinforce local governance and decision-making about conservation and climate change adaptation. In coordination with the state governments of Nayarit and Yucatán, CONANP, and agencies such as the United Nations Development Programme, the MFCC project aims to support Mexico’s transition to a sustainable, inclusive, and climate-resilient development approach—one that, says WWF’s Jacobo, “puts people at the center and leaves no one behind.” (Learn more about WWF’s work on the Yucatán Peninsula.)
To that end, a fundamental element of WWF’s work is to identify the best way to support community conservation enterprises such as Ostricamichín and Ecomata—locally run projects that depend on the vitality and beauty of the mangroves to thrive.
For Jacobo, learning from people like the Matas and members of Ostricamichín will help WWF advocate with institutions and educate decision-makers on more sustainable public policies. “The main objective is to bring nature back through mangroves,” she says, ensuring that degraded mangroves are restored or under enhanced protection by 2025. “Our goal is to slow climate change while positively impacting a total of 235,000 people through the improved ecosystem services mangroves provide.”
Back in Boca de Camichín, after a long day of work, Roberto, Rafael, and the rest of the Mata family sit at the restaurant table closest to the beach. Plates of ceviche, shrimp empanadas, and the family’s famous oyster chimichangas flood the space with mouthwatering smells.
Nearby, Julio sits down to rest and watches the rays of the sunset pass through the strings of oyster shells that adorn the border between the restaurant and the beach. A few meters away, his granddaughters play ball just as he did when he was a child.
With a sigh, he takes off his ever-present black cap, and a barely perceptible snip of embroidery peeks out—the silhouette of Güero Mata’s face. “It is the way to always remember him,” he says. “He shaped who I am.”
Julio says his father taught him everything he knows. He has tried to pass that on to his family as well. He hopes that someday his grandchildren will have the opportunity to work at the restaurant or at Ecomata, the businesses the family has built with so much effort.
“My dad’s pride was always his family,” Julio says as he looks at his cap. “It would be sad if we couldn’t offer that to our grandchildren, too.”
Shortly before we published the online version of this story, we learned that Boca de Camichín was recently hit by a tropical storm and Category 3 hurricane in the span of three weeks. Many of the families featured here are struggling, and WWF is determining the best way to support them.