The Valenzuela Brothers and Pen Shell Diving in the Infiernillo Channel, Sonora

Before starting, I must say that since I began to be interested on indigenous languages and groups of Mexico, the Comcaac people (or Seri) have been particularly fascinating to me. And after a long road, last year finally I had the opportunity to meet one of their several groups dedicated to biodiversity conservation inside their territory. In that time, I learned about the community management of fisheries in the Infiernillo Channel. Actually, having exclusive rights of the resources around Tiburón Island (stated in 1975) and an officially recognized territory (since 1978), Comcaac people have developed their own rules system that regulates not only the fisheries for community members, but for outsider fishermen as well, that comes to the Channel for the different species in it, mainly pen shells and crabs (jaibas).

In short, in regard to outsider fishermen, they have to pay a monthly permit of $5,000-$6,000 pesos (about 411-494 US dollars) to the traditional Comcaac Government. They can fish with their own fishing gear (boat or “panga”, motor, gillnets and tramps), or work with rented equipment to a Comcaac person, with whom must share part of their profits as payment. In the last case, it is usual to say that the outside fisherman “works for” the person who rents the panga. In any instance, one Comcaac at least must be part of crew.

Before visit Punta Chueca -one of the two Comcaac communities, in Sonora, México- with all the Community-Based Marine Conservation in the Gulf of California Class, I have never been curious about outsider fishermen working in Infiernillo Channel. Actually, I felt a little disappointed when Xavier told us that we would not be with Comcaac fishermen in our diving day for pen shells, but with outsider fishermen working for a Comcaac person. However, my disappointment went away the moment we reached the beach when I saw just a bit of the interaction between part of the community and the outsiders.

That day we worked with the Valenzuela Brothers: Pedro (“Pedrín”), Jesús Alberto (“Gualín”) and Ramiro, sons of don Pedro Valenzuela, all originally from Los Mochis, Sinaloa.  Don Pedro was among the first people who came to Punta Chueca for fishing, and became friends of some Comcaac. He used to go in and out of the community, but stayed long seasons working in the Infiernillo Channel. He traveled with all his family: his wife and 6 sons, all of them divers. Don Pedro himself taught them to dive when they were children: Gualín talked to me about how his father threw them into the water to learn, when they were working in Puerto San Carlos, Baja California Sur. Unfortunately, two of don Pedro’s sons have died in diving accidents.

The older sons of don Pedro were raised in Punta Chueca, going to school and growing up as any other Comcaac children. Actually, Pedrín understands Cmiique Iitom, the Comcaac’s language, and knows traditional songs as well. When we were on the beach I first thought that Pedrín was Comcaac, because I noticed that don Alfredo López (a Comcaac elder) talked to him in Cmiique Iitom.

Anyway, having all these relationships with Punta Chueca, Gualín fell in love with the youngest daughter of don Alfredo. Everybody opposed to that relationship, because it was bad (and still is) that a Comcaac woman marries an outsider. “But the more they said no to me, the more I wanted to marry her, you know?” Gualín told me, so he stole her and established at Punta Chueca. Only her mother and one of her brothers, José Luis, supported them in their love. José Luis and Gualín are childhood friends, and eventually José Luis married one of Gualín’s sisters, so they are brothers-in-law too.

Today, the Valenzuela brothers work most of the time in Punta Chueca. They don’t need to pay permit, because a Comcaac family backs them. They’re “free fishermen,” as all the fishermen without fishing permits licensed by CONAPESCA (National Commission of Fisheries and Aquaculture, a Federal agency) are named in Mexico. Gualín owns three pangas equipped for pen shell diving (with a “compresor” or hooka,practically assembled at home), which rents to his two brothers. They go diving with two more people as crew (the “poperos,” who clean the pen shells and check-up the hooka). The gas spent ($500-$800 daily pesos, around 41-64 US dllrs.) is covered with the product sale ingress, and the rest is distributed between the crew and the panga’s owner. In this case, the panga’s owner is also the middleman who sells the product at Kino Bay, and receives a commission of $10 pesos per kilo for the selling. The “callo redondo” (Pinna rugosa) is paid around $90 pesos per kilo, while the “callo de riñón” (Atrina tuberculosa) is around $180 pesos (7 and 15 US dllrs. roughly).

They try to obtain 30-35 pen shell kilos per “marea” (the work of one day). That means that, in good conditions like these days, they have to dive around four hours to get this amount. Pen shell season goes from November to May; when the weather gets too hot it’s impossible to dive, and there is also the “closure” of the pen shell by itself, when it’s covered by sargassum. Besides pen shell, they fish jaiba, manta ray and fishes such as payaso, palometa, mackerel, corvina and liza. Of these, the targets are only payaso and palometa fish and manta ray.

On the way back, I was thinking about all these life histories that give structure to fisheries and contributes, in some sense, to the diversity of interpretations and practices of the official fisheries regulations in Mexico. In every port we visited during our trip, we listened to different life histories and saw different ways of working and organization for fisheries. Our day as “poperos” went more than a lesson about commercial diving organization in the Infiernillo Channel: for me, it was about knowing -in a unexpected way- just one of the many aspects of Comcaac community through a Los Mochis family.