CABO PULMO, Mexico — What's happened at the Cabo Pulmo marine reserve off the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula is fishy — in a good way.
Once severely depleted of fish, the reef system off Cabo Pulmo now teems with marine life, thanks to fishing restrictions imposed more than 10 years ago.
But environmentalists are worried that that ecological advance will be lost if the Mexican government allows a $2 billion development plan to go ahead that would place a "new Cancun" less than three miles north of the Cabo Pulmo marine sanctuary.
Mexico's Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources has given Spanish developer Hansa Urbana all but final approval for the project, which would turn desert scrubland into a bustling development of hotels, condos, golf courses and a large marina.
Never miss a local story.
The government says such a resort would have no impact on the marine reserve.
That makes environmentalists seethe. They say the secretariat's speedy approvals are questionable and without scientific merit.
"This development is completely unjustifiable, especially since it's right next to the marine reserve," said Alejandro Olivera of the Mexico office of Greenpeace, the international activist group on conservation issues.
Olivera called the revival of Cabo Pulmo, the northernmost reef system along the Pacific coast of the Americas, "one of the best examples of marine conservation in Mexico."
"These fishermen realized that the waters were being overfished. So they changed from being fishermen to becoming providers of eco-services," he said.
Their action to halt commercial fishing brought about such a dramatic transformation of the reef system that oceanographers say it's an example not only for Mexico but also for other parts of the world.
The Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, one of the world's premier proponents of ocean health, described Cabo Pulmo as "the world's most robust marine reserve."
Scientists at Scripps reported in a scientific journal last month that the number of fish in the 27-square-mile marine reserve had soared 460 percent during a recent 10-year period.
"It's a totally, totally different reef," said Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, the lead oceanographer for the study. "It's the most dramatic thing."
"You go down and you see huge animals: tuna, jacks, sea bass, groupers," said Brad Erisman, a marine ecologist who was a co-author of the study.
Framed by a backdrop of stunning mountains, Cabo Pulmo sits on the eastern cape of Baja California about 60 miles northeast of Los Cabos, a tourism magnet.
Its 200 or so villagers are descendants of Jesus Castro-Fiol, a legendary diver for mother-of-pearl along the coral reefs on the parallel fingers of basalt that lie partly exposed underwater.
By the early 1990s, as they lobbied the government to declare the reef system a marine reserve, some members of the extended Castro clan began offering kayak expeditions, snorkeling trips and reef dive adventures to visitors. Today, the village has a half-dozen dive and snorkel shops.
The move toward sustainability didn't stop there. The village declined to hook into the national electrical grid, choosing to rely on solar panels for power.
A smattering of Americans have bought lots and built homes in Cabo Pulmo, supporting a handful of restaurants, and a steady trickle of tourists arrives along the gravel road that connects to the outside world.
While villagers chose new livelihoods, the fish population boomed, and big predators such as tiger and bull sharks, marlin, tuna, wahoo, snapper, grouper and sailfish also thrived. The predators caused smaller species to reproduce more quickly, strengthening the entire marine ecosystem.
The Cabo Pulmo reefs hold 11 of the 14 species of coral found in the Sea of Cortez, which also is known as the Gulf of California. Its regular inhabitants or visitors include five of the world's seven endangered species of sea turtles.
Oceanographers report amazement at what they see. Aburto-Oropeza said he flew in an ultra-light aircraft earlier this year and spotted a congregation of sharks in the reserve.
"There were up to 200 sharks in a small part of the reef. It was unbelievable. In my 20 years of diving in the gulf, I hadn't seen anything like that," he said.
On a recent dive, he said, he witnessed "a group of about 20 large fish, groupers and snappers, eating a bunch of grunts that were between 50 and 70 centimeters," a foot and a half to more than 2 feet long. "It was an incredible spectacle."
The marine park, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005, was clearly one of the reasons that Hansa Urbana, a development company based in Alicante, Spain, chose in 2007 to plan a major tourism development in Baja California.
Cyclone fencing surrounds much of its 15.4-square-mile site, and no ground has yet been broken. The firm's website and statements by company officers pledge three golf courses, a 490-slip marina, a jetport, 15 hotels and numerous condos, equivalent to 30,692 hotel rooms or 10,230 three-bedroom condos or houses. Construction would extend over three or four decades. For comparison, Cancun, Mexico's vast tourist development on the Caribbean, has more than 32,000 hotel rooms.
"Cabo Cortes will provide select visitors with the ultimate vacation experience of Mexico, and, for a fortunate few, second homes equal to anything the world can offer," the website says.
Residents in the nearby port of La Ribera, population 3,000, generally support the Cabo Cortes project, enticed by promises that it will create 19,000 direct and indirect jobs.
"Imagine how the merchandise will fly off the shelves around here," said Jose Leal, a fisherman. "You have to be in favor of development as long as it pulls you along, too."
Leal said local fishermen had been promised berths in the marina for their fishing boats, and that he'd receive a concession to provide ice for boaters.
Among leading marine scientists, the mood is far less cheery. National Geographic explorer-in-residence Sylvia Earle and 21 other U.S., Canadian, Mexican and Costa Rican scientists wrote to UNESCO headquarters in Paris in May to say the Cabo Cortes project "could cause irreversible harm to this unique and vulnerable reef" with its "overwhelming pollution."
Echoing that opinion, residents in Cabo Pulmo say the region's aquifer can't sustain such a large project, golf courses will expel chemicals into the sea and the building of the marina (where no natural bay exists) will send sediment southward.
"The dredging for the marina will create turbidity and hurt the reef. Fish will flee," said Judith Castro, one of the community's most vocal activists.
Scientists say currents in the Sea of Cortez vary from season to season but that in the winter they often come southward along Baja's eastern coast.
This is just "It's very clear that there will be impacts, and they won't be positive," said Grantly R. Galland, a Scripps marine ecologist.
A top environmental regulator from the federal secretariat, Mauricio Limon Aguirre, told television journalists in June that Cabo Cortes wouldn't endanger the national marine park. He didn't respond to recent requests for an interview.
"As of today, no project has been authorized that will disturb the sea. Because of this, we know that the reefs will not be affected," Limon Aguirre said.
In the end, global economic turmoil may do as much to halt Cabo Cortes as environmental activism. In June, the Banco de Espana was forced to step in to save an ailing Spanish savings bank that owns a quarter of Hansa Urbana, the developer.
That gives the Spanish government — sensitive to charges that the project is speculative and harmful to the environment — a voice in the development.
"Many Spaniards are deeply committed to conservation," said Mario Castro, a dive shop owner who attended a workshop in Spain earlier this year. "I am hopeful that they will withdraw from this project."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY