Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

The Lobstermen of Eastern Yucatán

The Lobstermen of Eastern Yucatán
José Catzim Castillo throws a freshly caught lobster into his father's net. Agostino Petroni and Sandali Handagama

By Agostino Petroni and Sandali Handagama

José "Josh" Catzim Castillo, a 25-year-old lobster fisher, circles a hollow concrete box resting on the seafloor, just off the coast of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. He slips a snare into the box and shakes it. Three spiny lobsters, or langostas, shoot out and try to flee, but Castillo is too quick.

He surfaces, hoisting his catch. Its tail snaps loudly, and its antennae makes a high-pitched squeak. Castillo's father, Pablo Catzim Pech, 51, hauls the spiny lobster into their fishing boat. The creature is one of most sought after crustaceans in the Caribbean. Marked by its thick antennae and sharp spines that run the length of its body, it can sell for $40 a pound in the United States.

Castillo and his father Pech are part of a collective with exclusive rights to fish spiny lobsters in Maria Elena bay, part of Mexico's Sian Ka'an national park. The lobster fishers of Maria Elena are an ecological success story. Even as the lobsters face increasingly chaotic weather and overfishing around the Caribbean, they are flourishing in the bay, thanks to the efforts of the collective.

Castillo is left behind in the ocean, as his father, Pech, steers the boat away from the rain to keep the lobsters alive. Agostino Petroni and Sandali Handagama

When it starts to rain, Pech dips two rags in the ocean and spreads them over the plastic crates attached to the sides of his boat, each one filled with dozens of lobsters submerged in saltwater. Pech steers the boat back to shore, leaving Castillo with only his mask and flippers — and no life jacket — in the ocean behind him.

"Sweetwater kills the lobsters," Pech said.

Climate change is bringing more intense rainfall to the region, flooding the bay with freshwater, menacing the lobsters, which can only survive in saltwater. The fishers say they are finding it harder to understand the weather. To make matters worse, rising seas are eroding the narrow beaches of Maria Elena. Seven years ago, a hurricane destroyed all but one cabana along the beach, while rainwater stagnated in the bay and killed many lobsters.

Then there is overfishing. Since the 1980s, lobster populations have dropped as much as 40 percent across the Caribbean, according to Eloy Sosa, a marine biologist at the research center Ecosur, who works with Castillo's collective to protect the spiny lobster. The crustaceans are diminishing in number and becoming harder to find, so fishers are having to dive as much as 40 meters underwater, weighed down by oxygen tanks, to try to nab them.

That's not the case in Maria Elena, where the lobsters are thriving. The bay's newest lobsterman, Jose Eduardo Uitz, actually came to the reserve because he no longer wanted to risk his life going deeper into the ocean to catch lobsters. In Maria Elena, they lie just under the surface.

Fishers of Maria Elena prepare to go to sea. Agostino Petroni and Sandali Handagama

Maria Elena wasn't always a lobster haven, however. The collective was granted special permission to fish in the reserve after it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987, but it wasn't until a decade later that the collective adopted sustainable fishing practices.

"Nobody knew anything about sustainability back then. Fishermen would take the eggs from a pregnant lobster, go home and scramble them with chicken eggs," Pech said.

Things changed when scientists like Sosa began conducting workshops inside the park, showing the fishers how to protect the lobsters by allowing them enough time to grow and reproduce. Thanks to the collective's efforts, lobster numbers have risen in Maria Elena, though they have yet to return to levels seen in the 1980s.

"The old men say that when they first arrived, there were so many lobsters that they even used to walk up to the shore," Castillo said.

Today's fishers are far more responsible than their forebears. They treat the crustacean like an investment and guard it jealously, hoping to nurture it back to its former glory.

Pablo Catzim Pech measures the tail of a smaller lobster with a 5-inch ruler. If the tail is shorter than the ruler, he will throw the lobster back into the ocean. Agostino Petroni and Sandali Handagama

"Being in Maria Elena is a privilege," Sosa said. "If an associate breaks the rules, the punishment is tough. They could expel you from the collective."

A descendant of Maria Elena's founders, Castillo knows this better than most. He is still trying to earn his place in the collective, waiting for a position to open up in the group of 50. For now, he is just an employee of his father, who is a member.

"I hope he will take charge of everything. I am teaching him everything about the lobster fields, the reef, and how to be a good captain," Pech said.

To keep the lobsters healthy, Pech inspects each one that Castillo catches. If it looks too small, he measures it. If the tail is shorter than the five-inch ruler, he throws the lobster back into the sea.

"We also free the biggest lobsters, weighing more than six pounds. The market doesn't pay their value. They are usually females, and they keep the species alive," he said.

Lobster tails, cut from the animals that died during capture, are collected in a bucket to be sold separately from the live exports. Agostino Petroni and Sandali Handagama

When the lobster fishers throw a female back into the ocean, they not only protect the local population, they also support lobster populations in other parts of the Caribbean. The females lay millions of eggs that grow into larvae and float along ocean currents to new homes thousands of miles away.

After measuring and sorting the lobsters, the fishers send them to Cozumel to be sold. Occasionally, they keep a few for themselves, to be cooked on a hot skillet in a crowded cabana on the beach. It is a small indulgence for fishers who have nurtured the lobsters back into abundance in Maria Elena bay.

"The biggest threat to this place is us," Pech said. "We are in the lobsters' habitat. It is our livelihood, but we are invading a place we do not belong."

Reposted with permission from Nexus Media.

Evacuees wait to board a bus as they are evacuated by local and state government officials before the arrival of Hurricane Laura on August 26, 2020 in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

By Maria Trimarchi and Sarah Gleim

If all the glaciers and ice caps on the planet melted, global sea level would rise by about 230 feet. That amount of water would flood nearly every coastal city around the world [source: U.S. Geological Survey]. Rising temperatures, melting arctic ice, drought, desertification and other catastrophic effects of climate change are not examples of future troubles — they are reality today. Climate change isn't just about the environment; its effects touch every part of our lives, from the stability of our governments and economies to our health and where we live.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

In 'My Octopus Teacher,' Craig Foster becomes fascinated with an octopus and visits her for hundreds of days in a row. Netflix

In his latest documentary, My Octopus Teacher, free diver and filmmaker Craig Foster tells a unique story about his friendship and bond with an octopus in a kelp forest in Cape Town, South Africa. It's been labeled "the love story that we need right now" by The Cut.

Read More Show Less


A couple react as they go through their destroyed mobile home following Hurricane Laura in Lake Charles, Louisiana, on August 27, 2020. ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS / AFP / Getty Images

By Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope

In this autumn of horrific fires and deadly floods, it's easy to overlook one bit of promising news on the climate front: Some major U.S. media coverage of the crisis is finally getting better.

Read More Show Less
Since April 2020, farmer support for Trump has fallen from 89 percent to 71 percent, according to an August 2020 survey by DTN/The Progressive Farmer. Steve Smith / Getty Imagess

By Leanna First-Arai

In a push to capture the rural vote, 62 percent of which went to Trump in 2016, both the Trump and Biden campaigns are ramping up efforts to appeal to farmers and ranchers.

Read More Show Less
An electric car at an eVgo charging station in a parking lot in Dublin, California on June 20, 2018. Smith Collection / Gado / Getty Images

California Governor Gavin Newsom signed an executive order Wednesday that would ban the sale of new cars in California that run only on gasoline by the year 2035. The bid to reduce emissions and combat the climate crisis would make California the first state to ban the sale of new cars with internal combustion engines, according to POLITICO.

Read More Show Less

Support Ecowatch