Once depleted by fishing, Cabo Pulmo now boasts a healthy mix of wildlife
Once depleted by fishing, Cabo Pulmo now boasts a healthy mix of wildlife Octavio Aburto-Oropeza/iLCP

The fish population in an undersea wildlife park near Mexico's southern tip rebounded by more than 460 percent over 10 years since being designated as a marine wildlife reserve, researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, said.

Cabo Pulmo National Park, or CPNP, was once depleted by fishing, but in 1995, citizens living around the area enforced "no take" restrictions that have resulted in the park's thriving.

The 71-square-kilometers undersea park, which is tucked away near the southern tip of Mexico's Baja peninsula, is now the world's most robust marine reserve in the world. This is an indication that depleted fisheries can recover up to a level that is comparable to remote, pristine sites untouched by fishing.

"We could have never dreamt of such an extraordinary recovery of marine life at Cabo Pulmo," said National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala in a statement.

Sala started the study in 1999.

"In 1999 there were only medium-sized fishes, but 10 years later, it's full of large parrotfish, groupers, snappers and even sharks," he said.

Researchers say no other reserve in the world has shown such a recovery.

Protection of spawning areas for large predators has been the key to the reserve's robustness. But most importantly, local enforcement, led by determined families, has been a major factor in the park's success, the researchers noted.

Boat captains, dive masters and other locals work to enforce the park's regulations and share surveillance, fauna protection and ocean cleanliness efforts, researchers found.

A press release noted that the scientists have been combining efforts to monitor the Gulf of California's rocky reefs every year for more than 10 year. They have sampled more than 30 islands and peninsula locations along Baja California, stretching from Puerto Refugio on the northern tip of Angel de la Guarda to Cabo San Lucas and Cabo Pulmo south of the Bahia de La Paz.

"Few policymakers around the world are aware that fish size and abundance can increase inside marine reserves to extraordinary levels within a decade after protection is established; fewer still know that these increases often translate into economic benefits for coastal communities" said Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, a Scripps postdoctoral researcher and lead author of the study. "Therefore, showing what's happened in Cabo Pulmo will contribute to ongoing conservation efforts in the marine environment and recovery of local coastal economies."

In the 10 years they found that Cabo Pulmo's fish species richness blossomed into a biodiversity hot spot. Animals such as tiger sharks, bull sharks and black tip reef sharks have increased. Other large fish at the marine park include gulf groupers, dog snappers and leopard groupers.

"We believe that the success of CPNP is greatly due to local leadership, effective self-enforcement by local stakeholders, and the general support of the broader community," the authors noted in their report.

Brad Erisman, a Scripps postdoctoral researcher and co-author of the article, said the reefs are full of hard corals and sea fans, which is creating a good habitat for lobsters, octopuses, rays and small fish.

"During some seasons thousands of mobula rays congregate inside the park and swim above the reef in a magnificent way," he said in a statement.

Cabo Pulmo Marine Reserve from Gulf Program on Vimeo.