Interview with an Inspirational Biologist Working to Protect Mexico’s Islands

Panoramic view of the Coronado Islands off Baja Peninsula in Mexico. (JA Soriano, Conservación de Islas)

MSRP recently spoke with Alfonso Aguirre-Muñoz, Executive Director, Grupo de Ecología y Conservación de Islas (GECI) in Ensenada, Mexico. GECI is a non-profit conservation organization that has a staff of 62 full-time scientists and technicians that are specialized in island restoration and conservation. Mexico’s islands are protected by a federal decree so GECI works closely with many federal government agencies in Mexico to protect and conserve the islands.

MSRP: Tell us more about your background and how long you have been in your position.

Alfonso Aguirre-Muñoz:  I received my BSc in Oceanography from the Marine Sciences Faculty of the Baja California Autonomous University, Ensenada, Mexico. After finishing my BSc, I received a scholarship from the Government of Japan to complete a graduate course in Marine Aquaculture, focused on mollusks, at Kagoshima University. Later, with a scholarship from the National Science Council (CONACYT), I completed an interdisciplinary PhD in Sustainable Development and Regional Studies at El Colegio de la Frontera (San Antonio del Mar, Baja California). Receiving my PhD gave me the tools to better understand the social implications on the use of natural resources and conservation in my professional work.

My first professional job was with the National Fisheries Bank as Planning Regional Manager and Technical Assistance Regional Manager. My main role was to integrate a team of capable professionals and substantial financial resources to set the basis for sustainable oyster, clams and mussels aquaculture projects that have been developing steadily during the last three decades. I also worked to strengthen the artisanal abalone and lobster fisheries within local cooperatives on the Northwest region’s islands. Later on and together with my brothers, I used this experience to start a family business devoted to oyster aquaculture in the Bay of San Quintín, and to the sustainable harvest of marine algae. This business has been a model of sustainable aquaculture within the San Quintín coastal zone for more than 20 years.

Finally, my third job—and perhaps the last one—has been about applied restoration and conservation work on the most diverse insular region(s) of Mexico. During the last 12 years, this current job—and thanks to the loyalty, trust and enduring support of very conscientious foundations and government institutions—allowed me to integrate an exceptional team of young biologists and technicians, construct a consensual vision, define priorities with a sound scientific approach, establish goals, make strategic decisions, and achieve very relevant and gratifying conservation results: the ecological restoration of 35 islands—representing more than 50,000 ha (117, 000 acres)—relevant for global biodiversity, particularly for unique seabirds, terrestrial birds, plants, mammals and reptiles.

MSRP: What makes Mexico’s islands unique and why are they important?

A Brandt's Cormorant colony on Baja Pacific Islands. (JA Soriano, Conservación de Islas)

Alfonso Aguirre-Muñoz: There are approximately 4,000 Mexican islands that are distributed all over the very diverse marine regions of the country: Baja California Pacific, Gulf of California, Tropical Pacific, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. There are temperate, desert, tropical, oceanic, and continental islands. As a result, these are some of the most biodiverse islands in the world. Of particular importance are their endemic species—plants and animals—per unit of area, Mexico’s Northwest islands host more endemic plants and vertebrates than the famous Galápagos Archipelago. Mexican islands are also key nesting sites for marine birds, hosting one of each three species (115 of a world’s total of 346) of seabirds in the world. It is also interesting to note that Mexican islands offer great scale connectivity, as resting areas for migratory birds and mammals, among wide ecoregions, bioregions and marine provinces. Mexican islands link marine bird and marine mammal populations distributed all over the Eastern Pacific Ocean from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska to the southern part of Baja California, from Hawaii to the oceanic islands of Guadalupe and the Revillagigedo Archipelago, and even from the tropical Pacific Mexican islands to islands in the Southern Hemisphere, such as the Galápagos Archipelago.

MSRP: What are the main threats to the islands and the animals that live there?

Alfonso Aguirre-Muñoz:  Thanks to accurate scientific research and evidence, now we know that the presence of invasive mammals—intentionally or accidentally introduced—are by far the largest conservation threat for the islands of Mexico and the islands elsewhere. Invasive species disrupt the whole insular ecosystem, destroying and fragmenting habitats, altering ecological functions, and causing extinctions of island endemic species by direct predation. Rats—in most cases introduced a long time ago by the guano mining industry and by commerce—and feral cats, mistakenly introduced to control small mammals, represent the worst threats. On Mexican islands, 9 endemic birds and 8 endemic mammals have gone extinct during the last century due to invasive mammals, representing two thirds of the country’s total extinctions.

MSRP: How many introduced species removals has GECI been in charge of and how many islands have been protected because of this conservation work?

Alfonso Aguirre-Muñoz:  While there are still some Mexican islands left with invasive mammals, 55 eradications of diverse invasive mammals such as rats, goats, feral cats and sheep, on 35 Mexican islands have been successfully executed over the last 15 years. Mexican islands offer one of the most valuable conservation opportunities in the world thanks to this systematic restoration work, the legal protection of Mexico’s islands by federal government decrees, and the fact that these islands are key habitats for a diverse number of species.

MSRP: What are the main goals of the seabird restoration project that is being funded by the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program and the Luckenbach Trustee Council?

Alfonso Aguirre-Muñoz: During the mid-20th century, oil spills and DDT had a large negative impact on seabird populations along the California Current System. Given the interconnection between the Mexican and American seabird populations (breeding in Mexico and wintering in California or further north) and the importance of Mexican islands for seabirds, the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program and the Luckenbach Trustee Council agreed to fund a seabird restoration program on seven islands or archipelagos off Baja California. The islands where active restoration is being conducted are, from North to South: Coronado, Todos Santos, San Martín, San Jerónimo, Natividad, San Roque and Asunción. All these islands are important because they host, or historically hosted, large populations of seabird species. The main goals of this restoration program are: 1) to monitor and restore seabird populations; 2) to reduce human disturbance; and 3) environmental education and outreach. With the help of social attraction techniques we aim to increase the number of breeding individuals and the number of colonies on the islands. For restoration and reduction of human disturbance we are removing introduced plant species, and installing artificial nest burrows. We installed boardwalks on San Jerónimo to keep people from wandering freely around the island during nesting season. We organize environmental education events with the fishermen from local communities, one of our strongest partners, sharing the importance of seabirds, of the islands, of the need to keep the islands free of introduced species, and the need to stay far from seabird colonies given their sensitivity to human disturbance.

MSRP:  Do you have hope for the continued restoration and conservation of Mexico’s islands?

Alfonso Aguirre-Muñoz:  As biologists and professionals devoted to nature’s conservation we are obliged with hope, it is the very core of our work ethic. Our only option is to be optimistic and work hard accordingly. In any event, as we say in Spanish, we “pray to God, and hammer away.” The new values of the 21st century unavoidably include respecting nature and social awareness. Therefore, we view environmental restoration and conservation work as an exceptional privilege. Fortunately, after 15 years of a positive trajectory, we know that thanks to steadily “hammering away” we can restore all of these Mexican islands. We now have the certainty that Mexican and other country’s institutions, organizations, foundations, local communities and the most diverse partners, recognize the effort and understand the value, generously backing and collaborating finances, in-kind support and technical resources. I have witnessed that the consistent and relevant achievements to date that evidently benefit our continuously smaller world, creates a positive and constructive mood that for sure will endure as trust and fulfillment keep embracing this collaborative action, well beyond and above political borders, egos and particular interests.

MSRP:  What has been your most memorable experience working in your current position?

Alfonso Aguirre-Muñoz:  Being such a rich work in all respects, it is very hard to think about a single memorable experience. Every day is a memorable day when working for nature. Every day you go to sleep with the pleasing feeling of having done the right thing. Compassion—suffering with otherness as a distinction of human nature—and acting consequently gives you tranquility and peace of mind. Every day, at the end of the journey you remember how the cypress and pine forest on Guadalupe Island responds to the goat eradication: out of 3,300 old cypress trees left by the goats now we have more than 170,000 seedlings and juveniles; out of 220 old endemic pine trees now we have more than 15,000 seedlings and juveniles. To see the seabirds enjoying life in a rat-free island, raising their kids in a “safe neighborhood,” is an amazing emotion. An absolute poem with no words. To observe the fishermen and their families, as well as the military personnel, partnering with our biologists in taking care of some of the most valuable and fragile natural environments is also very rewarding. Healing wounds, an urgent need nowadays, and proving that we are still on time to make a better world for us and the ones to come, has been my most gratifying professional and personal experience. If that would not be enough, being able to contribute in the creation of quality and lasting jobs for young biologists so they can do what they have skills in and want to do is also a very fulfilling sentiment.

MSRP: What advice do you have for future biologists?

Alfonso Aguirre-Muñoz:  Persevere and never give up; always develop new technical abilities; reflect upon an explicit professional ethics based on compassion, empathy, teamwork and wide collaboration; be open to interdisciplinary formation and approaches; be sensitive to social and political matters; and above all, enjoy every day as a privilege the fantastic work of nature conservation; and finally, give advice only if requested…!