Vigilance Program

Mexico's First Citizen-Funded And Run Vigilance Program Starts

In 2007, Sea Watch with their attorney Maria Ugarte and armed with 1000s of emails from Sea Watch supporters, sponsored a new federal regulation to ban compressors (hookah gear) for any fish extraction in all Mexican waters. It was approved in late 2007. For the last 12 years hookah divers using nets during the day and spearguns at night have killed over 90% of the reef fish. These two illegal techniques (YouTube Video Hookah Divers Are Killing The Sea) account for 60 to 70 percent of the fish in the markets during the spring and they are the reasons the reefs in BCS and in the Sea of Cortes are empty. Sea Watch then fought for the next 2 years to get the approved ban passed into law. That just happened!

So, on July 1st, 2009 – a new vigilance patrol program called “Observatorio Ciudadano” was begun in La Paz by Plataforma Bahia de La Paz and is off to a successful start – on the first 3 nocturnal weekly vigilance trips, contacts were made with approximately 20 boats fishing illegally (View Trip Reports) and pictures (Vigilance Team Working). The vigilance programs goals are threefold. First, is to patrol night and day to make contact with fishermen, disseminate information and discuss problems. Second, to stop illegal acts like hookah divers using nets during the day and spear guns at night to clean the reefs of fish. And third, to build a net of fishermen, citizens, dive businesses and the cruising community that will work together to report illicit acts. Plataforma attorneys will then file denuncias (lawsuits) and encourage (pressure in the press) officials to prosecute the violations.

Plataforma Bahia de La Paz, a group Sea Watch helped start three years ago, has formed this civil society sponsored, funded and run vigilance program, formally called “Observatorio Ciudadano” or OC. Plataforma is an open group to all interested. It is pluralistic and multisectoral, comprised of local fishermen, concerned citizens, lawyers, scientists, businesses and business people and most of Mexico’s strongest NGO’s and was formed in response to the problems and opportunities that confronted the Bay of La Paz and is intended to be a model for sustainability for the region. One of it’s main goals is to fight illegal fishing activities and stop the massive destruction they inflict on all areas of the Sea of Cortes. Two decades ago, ninety percent of the Gulf’s marine life was intact. Now many experts claim only about ten percent remains – the majority of damage due to non-stop, invasive illegal commercial fishing practices.

The program is being initially funded by Sea Watch. Mike McGettigan, founder of Sea Watch states, “We have always felt you have to start with Vigilance and enforcement. Otherwise you set up marine protected areas, marine parks, sanctuaries, biospheres, etc. and they immediately become the private fishing grounds of the strongest illegal fishermen. There are fishermen that fight (and pay) to have the rights to fish in the protected areas.” He continues, “Plataforma is now quite strong in BCS and is supported by Mexico’s largest NGO’s. Plataforma has become a force to be reckoned with and a strong voice in the BCS community.”

Through this Plataforma program, anyone can report illegal fishing activities anonymously without fear of retribution either in person, by phone, radio or email. All illegal activity is recorded weekly by the patrols and reported to all pertinent authorities. Plataforma attorneys will then file denuncias (law suits) and a list of illegal activities and the perpetrators will also be published in the La Paz paper every 20 days – It will list the boats stopped, the denuncias filed, what the authorities have done to date and the final resolution (fines issued). Mike McGettigan, founder of Sea Watch states, “It will be a score card that encourages the authorities to do their job which is to arrest boats fishing illegally and prosecute them.”

How Does “Observatorio Ciudadano” Work?

With an OC patrol boat and a seaplane working night and day in the area of theBay of La Paz and the lower gulf Islands, from Santa Cruz to the north to Isla Cerralvo to the south, the OC staff talk with fishermen (both commercial and sports) about the laws governing the area, check documentation, permits, fish catches and hands-out brochures with printed regulations. The patrols also look for illicit acts and report them in real time via iridium phone to the authorities and to Plataforma so that official denuncias (lawsuits) can be filed against the illegal acts and later followed up on to be sure the illegal acts are properly punished.

The goal of Plataforma is to get the vast majority of honest fishermen, both commercial and sports fishermen, as well as the cruising community involved in detecting and reporting illegal acts, thereby creating a net of concerned people with the common goal of protecting the Bay. (Join Plataforma and help) The OC patrol boat is run by people also trained in sea rescue. They carry oxygen and other emergency equipment and can communicate immediately with the navy and other agencies via Iridium satellite phone from anywhere in the sea.


1st Report – June 22ND -26TH 2009 – VMS File
2nd Report – July 16TH -19TH 2009 – VMS File
3rd Report – July 23rd -25th 2009 – VMS File
4th Report – July 23rd -25th 2009 – VMS File

2010 Vigilance Reports

Note: To view VMS files you need Google Earth. Download free here:

The OC Vigilance Patrols protect 120 miles of coastline and 6 lower gulf Islands for about $1500/week. It’s worth your support!

View latest photos of Las Islotes reefs that are already benefiting from the new vigilance patrols.

Reef fish near La Paz continue their comeback thanks to OC vigilance program

Watch the Obsevatorio Ciudadano video.

OC Report from January 18th and 19th/a>

Leave a comment:

  1. This is an amazing program. Thank you for providing the bootstrap funding, and keep up the good work. Nothing happens until people have a way to contribute.

    David McMurdie · Sep 8, 11:35 · #

  2. What an amazing accomplishment. Love the photos of the vigilance team at work, as well as the photo of graduation members in the newsletter. I wish there were more ways to highlight for the gringo community all the hard-work and dedication of so many Mexican locals and professionals in fighting these abuses for years. Thanks for all your hard work.

    Molly · Sep 15, 08:37 · #

  3. What an incredible program. I am curious, however, how limiting a few smaller fisherman will work in correlation to the major expansion of trade with the Japanese, incl for Baja California Sur lobster.


    Jim Pickell · Oct 3, 08:04 · #

  4. Hola Mike,

    The results from the OC are slowly trickling in and are causing beneficial side effects like, uncertainty amongst fisherman when carrying out illegal activities that makes them choose the legal path, and more. The results are surprising everyone, even the non believers. I am certain that the OC is gaining momentum and credibility and will soon be a model for other regions…

    This has been in your mind for quite some time and it is finally implemented and operating, I admire your perseverance and congratulations for envisioning this concept and to Maria that had to swim upstream many times to convince several people that this was in fact a good idea.

    Next week I will be in Mexico city attending the board meeting of the Gulf of California Conservation fund from Fondo Mexicano para la Conservacion de la Naturaleza (FMCN) and I will share the OC concept to other board members as a success story in the Gulf of California.

    Manuel · Oct 6, 12:32 · #

  5. I recently returned from diving the near dive sites out of La Paz and i must say that i was impressed with the numbers of reef fish, and sizes of schools that I saw. this was especially true for Suwanee reef and Los Islotes. However, i was disappointed to see a very large dive boat (Sea Escape) that nearly ran upon the reef at La Reyna, and anchored bow and stern almost on top of the dive site. too close!

    good work on helping these reefs recover!


    Skip Stubbs · Nov 1, 14:35 · #

  6. Hey Mike, I just wanted to tell you about a little something that happened while we were up in Escondito and Loreto on our last trip. A man came over the radio one morning stating he had to rent a car and drive to La Paz to pay a fine for harvesting Scallops w/ his hooka. The first thing that came to mind was Seawatch ( at least we are hoping). Anyway, it has been nice seeing some change as far as being checked for licenses and so on this season. My Dad also was wondering if a contribution would be tax deductible? Keep up the good work and we look forward to supporting however we can. Jason

    Jason · Nov 3, 07:55 · #

  7. Mike:

    I would like to congratulate you and everyone in your organization for doing a fantastic job bringing back the Sea of Cortez. We keep our boat in La Paz most of the year and have being going to the islands and up to Loreto for the last 28 years. My big passion is sportfishing and unfortunately I have seen a mayor decline in fish stocks over the years. Being a representative of the IGFA and working closely with TBF I release all billfish and keep only what we eat.

    Next year I will also be the chairman for the 70th ILTTA (International Light Tackle Tournament Association) Tournament which was started by Dr. Roy B. Dean as an all release format in Acapulco 63 years ago. It will take place in Los Barriles at Hotel Palmas de Cortez. We are expecting between 60 to 70 anglers from 11 countries, some as far as South Africa. The format is all release billfish only on 20lb. line trolling dead bait using CIRCLE HOOKS exclusively. If you would like more info on ILTTA visit We move the tournament to a different country each year and I’m very excited to bring them back to Mexico and the Sea of Cortez next year!

    The ILTTA is being held june 7 – 13 of next year. If you are in the area you are invited to stop by and tell us more about Sea Watch, hopefully we can get ILTTA involved in some way.

    Best regards,

    Javier Padilla

    Javier Padilla · Dec 16, 12:17 · #

  8. Comment: It’s sad that we need to resort to a program like “Observatorio Ciudadano” to make our fellow mariners (panga fishermen) do what’s right. But the continuinig destruction of the reefs is 100 times more sad. It’s irrevocable. At this scale of hookah plundering, it’s not about a few guys keeping their kids from starving. It’s not about a meal on the table, it’s about greed and unconsciousness. The reefs need to be protected immediately, and it can’t protect itself. We need to do it. AND we need to replace hookah fishing with legal jobs for the locals.

    When I first snorkeled and scuba dove the magnificent reefs from La Paz up to Puerto Escondido, it was 1978. Every square inch below the surface pulsated with life, brilliant color, jaw-drop stunning – grottos of enormous fans, brilliant sponges, crowded with schools of fantastical critters, water crystaline clear. Life flourished.

    Well, I was shocked to return to some of those same reefs in the late 1990s and witness the pall of gray-green death cloaking the reefs. They were just rock piles as desolate as the moon. I had heard there was a problem with unconscious fishing practices, but I had no idea – could not have believed – what that has meant to the Sea of Cortez. Compared to the vibrance of 30 years ago, it looks like agent orange has been sprayed over the Sea of Cortez. And the problem continues this minute.

    My only question is, how soon can the OC model off La Paz be put into action all around the Sea of Cortez?

    Patricia Rains · Dec 16, 22:34 · #

  9. Hey Mike,
    I just read the Seawatch newsletter which looks really great and positive. Congratulations! I keep thinking back to that time we had lunch with Alejandro, Maria, Liliana and Michelle (the Belgian miner) and we kept talking about how long it was going to take but that things could really take off if people actually began to work together. It looked for a while as if it would never happen and now, hey! There is something to show for it. Well done on your perseverance. I am happy and proud to have participated even if it was only for a little while.

    All the best for the holidays my friend.


    Julian Portilla
    Program Director
    Masters in Mediation and Applied Conflict Studies
    Woodbury Institute of Champlain College
    163 South Willard St.
    Box 34
    P.O. Box 670
    Burlington, VT 05402-0670

    Julian Portilla · Dec 30, 09:50 · #

  10. Hi Julian:

    Yes, it is great to see. It wouldn’t have happened if you hadn’t worked so hard to make Plataforma relevant and strong. Plataforma gives us the multi sector horse power to get everyone’s attention and involvement. Alejandro said an interesting thing once, and I’m not sure I can quote it correctly, but the essence was, “ bureaucrats often want to do a good job, the job they were hired to do, but they are caught in such a broken and often corrupt system, they don’t know how to achieve those goals.” This has proved to be true with vigilance and enforcement. What started as pushing to make officials perform, has now got some Local and Federal officials quietly applauding and some have said they would help, sometimes covertly, but more and more overtly. This is good news for next year.
    Take care and Happy New Year,


    Mike McGettigan · Dec 30, 09:54 · #

  11. Dear Mike,
    As you know, I represent many recreational divers who visit the Sea Of Cortez. My book Blue Water Hunting and Freedivng is one of the most widely read book on the sport. This year, I served on California’s Marine Life Protective Act as a delegate to help fashion marine reserves. I have been diving Baja for almost 50 years now and witnessed first hand the terrible destruction wrought by the hookah divers who hunt sleeping and defenseless fish at night. Your work with the locals to protect their own is absolutely the right path. I am gratified with your efforts and those of the Sea Watch team you have assembled over the last 20 years.
    Terry Maas, DDS

    Terry Maas · Dec 30, 10:31 · #

  12. Name: vicki
    Comment: So all the illegal hookah fishermen are getting around your law by driving to the beaches between La Paz and Los Barriles, entering with their gear directly from the shore, harvesting the reef fish and placing them into truck-mounted tanks that look like oil drums, then leaving by the main highways. They are not from our area and begin around March. Who do we call to take down these guys? Did I mention the pangas with nets over the reefs during the Easter weeks? No one patrols here then or on the weekends when these guys are working it during daylight hours as hard as they can. What do we do about it? Again these are visiting boats, not locals but they are grabbing all they can knowing that no one will do anything about them. We could use some help down here.

    vicki · Dec 30, 12:12 · #

  13. Hi Vicki

    First thanks for the input. You could help us by filing an eyereport ( ) and/or by calling in English to 612-1025266 La Paz or in English/Spanish to attorney Maria Ugarte 6121188822 La Paz. We will have someone from Cabo come, if not someone from La Paz. The Easter holidays are bad as everyone is trying to get fish. Thanks for getting involved.



    Mike McGettigan · Dec 30, 12:19 · #

  14. As quoted from Sea Watch, “The goal of Plataforma is to get the vast majority of honest fishermen, both commercial and sports fishermen, as well as the cruising community involved in detecting and reporting illegal acts, thereby creating a net of concerned people with the common goal of protecting the Bay.”

    Manuel Carrdenas · Apr 29, 05:11 · #

Textile Help

Old Websites for Archival Information (pdf)

Seawatch 1st Site (1994) 5.4MB
Seawatch 2nd Site (2000) 16MB


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