Thesis Title:

From unsustainability to symbiosis: a socio-ecological assessment of Cabo Pulmo National Park in the face of climate change


Mariela Pérez Ponzanelli

Primary Supervisor:

Dr Awantha Dissanayake

University of Gibraltar

Secondary Supervisor:

Dr Héctor Reyes-Bonilla

Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur

Project start date: 15/05/2023
Project end date: 16/08/2023

About We Are One Ocean

This marine social science project aims to increase the visibility of the inextricable connection between marine conservation, sustainability, and human wellbeing through a socio-ecological approach. The case of Cabo Pulmo National Park is studied in order to assess the potential of marine ecosystem goods and services, particularly ecotourism, as incentives for the ongoing effectiveness of marine protected areas.

Cabo Pulmo National Park

  • Cabo Pulmo National Park (CPNP) was declared a natural protected area on 6 June 1995 by the Federal Government in order to preserve the northernmost coral reef in the East Pacific and protect it from overfishing [1].
  • It is located in the Gulf of California, Mexico in the municipality of Los Cabos, Baja California Sur [2, 3].
  • The marine protected area (MPA) covers 7,111 hectares of which 99 % is marine [4].
  • It was the local community who requested the advice of scientists from Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur (UABCS) and then jointly requested the government to establish a natural protected area [5].
  • The local community decided to transition from unsustainable fishing practices to an ecotourism-based economy that includes services such as snorkelling, scuba diving, kayaking, and recreational fishing [5-6].
  • In 2005, CPNP was declared a Natural World Heritage site, and in 2008, it was designated as a Ramsar site [3,7].
  • Between 1999 and 2009, there was a 463 % increase in fish biomass in CPNP [8].
  • Out of the 875 registered marine species in the Gulf of California, 26 % inhabit this MPA [1].
  • There is presence of species under national and international protection; for example, loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta), leatherback turtle (Dermochelys coriacea), and black turtle (Chelonia agassizii), among several others [1].
  • The species abundance of some organisms such as sharks is on the highest index levels at a national level [1].
  • The coral reef is fundamental in fish and larvae exportation; annually, around 600 tons of fishing species migrate to the coasts of the municipalities of La Paz and Loreto in the Gulf of California [1].
  • Studies have estimated that the monetary value of some of the benefits offered by the reef in CPNP, namely atmospheric carbon sequestration, fishery exports, and direct profit from tourism, is equal to at least US$1.1 million per year [9].
  • Cabo Pulmo has around 200-250 residents [10], and approximately 40,000 people visit the marine protected area per year [11].

Map source: (Amigos para la Conservación de Cabo Pulmo, 2023)

The Three Pillars Of This Research

We Are One Ocean is an interdisciplinary project that involves environmental, social, and economic sciences. Through innovative and artistic ways, it is intended to communicate the most relevant information about the three pillars of this research: Marine Protected Areas, Ocean Literacy, and Ecosystem Goods and Services. All of this being framed in the context of climate change, a global issue that demands creative and strategic solutions to increase societal and environmental resilience to the best of our abilities. See below a graphical representation of the three pillars and project design.
Due to climate change during this century,
environmental, social and economic impacts
will become major challenges for humanity.

What are Marine Protected Areas?

Marine Protected Areas are a policy instrument that aims for conservation and sustainable use of ecosystems [12]. As per the IUCN, MPAs are “a clearly defined geographical space, recognised, dedicated and managed, through legal or other effective means, to achieve the long-term conservation of nature with associated ecosystem services and cultural values” [12]. There are several degrees of protection that range from minimally protected to fully protected, and as of today, only 8.2 % of the ocean is under protection [13]. The MPAs termed “no-take” are a highly protected zone where removing or destroying natural and cultural resources is not allowed [14]. No-take zones are the most effective type; in them, fish biomass can increase 670 % more than in unprotected areas, and 343 % more than in partially protected areas [15]. National parks, such as CPNP, fall into Category II of natural protected areas; these are “large natural or near-natural areas protecting large-scale ecological processes with characteristic species and ecosystems, which also have environmentally and culturally compatible spiritual, scientific, educational, recreational and visitor opportunities” [16].
Stakeholder engagement is crucial for MPA effectiveness, as it influences planning, governance, monitoring, legitimacy, and communication [17-18]. Besides having S.M.A.R.T. objectives (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-bound) [19], it has been suggested that “NEOLI” characteristics increase the likelihood of the MPA accomplishing conservation [20]:
N – No-take (the most effective type)
E – Enforced (legal compliance and effective policy mixes)
O – Old (more that 10 years of antiquity)
L – Large (spanning over more that 100 km2)
I – Isolated (either by sand or deep sea)
Key takeaway messages
  • Through conservation, MPAs can benefit people and nature.
  • No-take zones are the most effective type of MPAs.
  • Stakeholder engagement is crucial for MPA effectiveness.

What are ecosystem goods and services?

Ecosystem goods and services (ESs) are the direct and indirect benefits that people obtain from nature [21]. The most widely accepted categorisation of ESs is the one proposed by the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, which divides them into supporting, regulating, provisioning, and cultural [22]. The following table shows some examples of ESs and their characteristics per type [23]:
Type Characteristics Examples
Products obtained from ecosystems
  • Food
  • Fresh Water
  • Fuel Wood
  • Fibre
  • Biochemicals
  • Genetic resources


Benefits obtained from regulation of ecosystem
  • Climate regulation
  • Disease regulation
  • Water regulation
  • Water purification
  • Pollination
Services necessary for the production of all other ecosystem services
  • Soil formation
  • Nutrient cycling
  • Primary production
Nonmaterial benefits obtained from ecosystem
  • Spiritual and religious
  • Recreation and ecotourism
  • Aesthetic
  • Inspirational
  • Educational
  • Sense of place
  • Cultural heritage

Adapted from: Valmer, 2014

It has been estimated that the total monetary value of global ecosystem services is equal to US$46 trillion per year [24]. Economic valuation of ESs, although relevant for scientific communication purposes since it translates information to a language understood by policymakers and lay audiences, has been argued by some to be meaningless, because, without them, human life would cease to exist, which must mean that their value is infinite [25].
Key takeaway messages
  • It is because of ESs that life on Earth is possible.
  • Monetary valuation of ESs is useful because it translates ecosystem value to a language understood by all.
  • The most widely accepted categories of ESs are provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting.

What is Ocean Literacy?

Ocean Literacy can be broadly defined as “one’s understanding of the ocean’s influence on us, and our influence on the ocean” [26]. It has been suggested that Ocean Literacy can enact human behavioural change, and by doing so, contribute to the alleviation of contemporary environmental issues [27] such as climate change, ocean acidification, eutrophication, and biodiversity loss amongst others [28].
Ocean literacy has seven core principles [29]:
  1. The Earth has one big ocean with many features.
  2. The ocean and life in the ocean shape the features of Earth.
  3. The ocean is a major influence on weather and climate.
  4. The ocean makes the Earth habitable.
  5. The ocean supports a great diversity of life and ecosystems.
  6. The ocean and humans are inextricably interconnected.
  7. The ocean is largely unexplored.
Principle number six is about connectedness, and it is the inspiration behind the project’s short title “We Are One Ocean.” The marine environment is the source of more than half of the air we breathe [30]. It is expected to become an increasingly important source of food with rising human population [31]. Currently, more than three billion people rely on marine and coastal ecosystems for their livelihoods and food security [32]. The ocean, which covers more than 70 % of the global surface, is profoundly linked to the atmosphere; they influence each other and regulate climate on Earth [33].
Key takeaway messages
  • We are connected to and influenced by the ocean in multiple ways.
  • Human behavioural changes are needed to tackle global climate change.
  • The ocean is vital to sustain life on Earth.

Marine social science and socio-ecology

The effectiveness of an MPA is an ongoing process that requires work and a holistic approach [10]. While numerous studies have been carried out in CPNP, a place that exemplifies how conservation, species recovery, and economic activities can coexist, the sustainability model of the MPA remains a fragile conservation case due to development itself [1]. There have been several attempts of large coastal development projects that have been perceived in the past as threats to the local ideal of sustainable development [6]. Some researchers point out that in time, if concerns about governance, equality, inclusion, authority, and rights are not addressed, CPNP could risk being a story of biological success that ends by failing because of a lack of focus on socio-political factors [10]. Despite the undeniable success of CPNP as a MPA, the community of Cabo Pulmo faces some internal challenges of social, political, economic and infrastructural character such as lack of adequate public water and power systems, health services, and defined public spaces [1]. Socio-ecological research can build on more than twenty years of environmental studies in order to strengthen the local development plan [1].
Instead of treating them as separate elements, socio-ecology studies humans and nature as part of a whole, both of which are dynamic and continuously influence each other. From a socio-ecological systems perspective, “the delineation between social and natural systems is artificial and arbitrary” [34]. Marine social science can be defined as “any area of work that relates to the relationship between society and the sea,” it can involve art, humanities, economics, anthropology, governance, sociology, psychology, and sustainable development among several others [35].
In order to craft a stronger sustainable model, it is important to recognise that the economy is a subsystem of society, which is in turn a subsystem of the biosphere. In the past, economy, society, and the environment have been treated as separate, when evidence supports that ultimately, all of human wellbeing depends on the biosphere capacity and balance [34].


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[1] Agencia Informativa Conacyt (2015) La exitosa recuperación ecológica de Cabo Pulmo. Cienciamx. Available at: cabo-pulmo-referente-de-la-conservacion-en-mexico [Accessed: 4 April 2023].

[2] Amigos para la Conservación de Cabo Pulmo (n.d.). Dónde estamos. Available at: [Accessed: 20 April 2023].

[3] Amigos para la Conservación de Cabo Pulmo (n.d.) El Parque. Cabopulmoamigos. Available at: [Accessed: 20 April 2023].

[4] Sistema de Información, Monitoreo y Evaluación para la Conservación (SIMEC) (2022). Cabo Pulmo. Available at: [Accessed: 12 April 2023].

[5] Calderón-Hinojosa, F., Elvira-Quesada, J.R., Montaño-Agúndez., Enkerlin-Hoeflich, E., Gutiérrez-Carbonell, D. and Narro-Flores, C.E. (2006). Programa de Conservación y Manejo Parque Nacional Cabo Pulmo.  Ciudad de México: Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas.

[6] Anderson, R.B. (2015). Sustainability, ideology, and the politics of development in Cabo Pulmo, Baja California Sur, Mexico. J. Polit. Ecol. 22, 239. doi: 10.2458/v22i1.21107.

[7] Ramsar Sites Information Service (Ramsar) (2008). Available at: [Accessed April 29, 2023].

[8] Aburto-Oropeza, O., Erisman, B., Galland, G. R., Mascareñas-Osorio, I., Sala, E., and Ezcurra, E. (2011). Large recovery of fish biomass in a no-take marine reserve. PLoS One 6, e23601. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0023601.

[9] Reyes-Bonilla, H., Cárdenes, P.A.A.d-C., Aguilera, L.E.C., Ricárdez, C.E.E., Rivera, F.J.F., Frausto, T.C., et al. (2014). “Servicios Ambientales de Arrecifes Coralinos: El Caso del Parque Nacional Cabo Pulmo, Baja California Sur,” in Desarrollo Regional en Baja California Sur: Una Perspectiva de los Servicios Ecosistémicos., eds. J.I.U. García (La Paz, Baja California Sur: UABCS), 49-77.

[10] Anderson, R.B. (2019) ‘Beyond “Success”: Community, Governance, and the Future of Cabo Pulmo National Park’, Human Organization, 78(2), pp: 147-157. doi: 10.17730/0018-7259.78.2.147

[11] Castillo, A. (2021). Cabo Pulmo: cambio climático y exceso de turistas ponen en riesgo santuario marino en México. Mongabay. Available at: [Accessed 15 April 2023].

[12] International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) (2012). When is a Marine Protected Area really a Marine Protected Area. IUCN. Available at: [Accessed 1O April 2023].

[13] Marine Conservation Institute (MPAtlas) (2023) The Marine Protection Atlas. Available at: [Accessed 10 May 2023].

[14] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (2020). About Marine Protected Areas NOAA. Available at:,in%20these%20no%2Dtake%20areas [Accessed 10 May 2023].

[15] Sala, E. and Giakoumi, S. (2018). Contribution to the Themed Section: ‘Marine Protected Areas.’ Food for Thought. No-take marine reserves are the most effective protected areas. ICES J. Mar. Sci. 75(3), 1166-1168. doi: 10.1093/icesjms/fsx059

[16] Dudley, N. (2008). Guidelines for Applying Protected Area Management Categories. Gland, Switzerland: IUCN.

[17] Giakoumi, S., McGowan, J., Mills, M., Beger, M., Bustamante, R. H., Charles, A. (2018). Revisiting “success” and “failure” of marine protected areas: A conservation scientist perspective. Front. Mar. Sci. 5. doi: 10.3389/fmars.2018.00223.

[18] Dehens, L.A. and Fanning, L.M. (2018). What counts in making marine protected areas (MPAs) count? The role of legitimacy in MPA success in Canada. Ecol. Indic., 86, 45-57. doi: 10.16/j.ecolind.2017.12.02

[19] The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) (2017). Marine Protected Areas. Economics, Management and Effective Policy Mixes. OECD. Available at: (Accessed 14 April 2023).

[20]   Edgar, G.J., Stuart-Smith, R.D., Willis, T.J., Kininmonth, S., Baker, S.C., Banks, S. et al., (2014). Global conservation outcomes depend on marine protected areas with five key features. Nature, 506(7487), 216–220. doi: 10.1038/nature13022

[21] Beaumont, N.J., Austen, M.C., Atkins, J.P., Burdon, D., Degraer, S., Dentinho, T.P. (2007) Identification, definition and quantification of goods and services provided by marine biodiversity: Implications for the ecosystem approach. Mar. Pollut. Bull. 54. doi: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2006.12.0032

[22] Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (2005). Ecosystems and Human Well-Being. MEA. Available at: [Accessed: 28 December 2022].

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[25] Costanza, R., d’Arge, R., de Groot, R., Farber, S., Grasso, M., Hannon, B., et al. (1997). The value of the world’s ecosystem services and natural capital. Nature, 387, 253-260. doi: 10.1038/387253a0

[26] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (2023). Ocean and Climate Literacy. NOAA. Available at:,the%20ocean%20and%20its%20resources. [Accessed 10 April 2023].

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[28] OSPAR Commission (2010). Quality Status Report 2010. Chapter 3: Climate Change. OSPAR. Available at: [Accessed: 18 April 2023].

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[30] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) (2023). How much oxygen comes from the ocean? NOAA. Available at:’s%20oxygen,oxygen%20than%20the%20largest%20redwoods. [Accessed 10 May 2023].

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[32] Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) (2017). FAO Statement on the Themes for the Partnership Dialogues. United Nations Conference to Support the Implementation of Sustainable Development Goal 14: Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development. UN. Available at: [Accessed 13 May 2023].

[33] National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) (2023). Climate Variability. NASA. Available at:,for%20years%20to%20millions%20of [Accessed 9 May 2023].

[34] Preiser, R., Biggs, R., De Vos, A., and Folke, C. (2018). Social-ecological systems as complex adaptive systems: organizing principles for advancing research methods and approaches. Ecol. Soc. 23. doi: 10.5751/es-10558-230446

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  • MSc

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