ArcNews Online

Spring 2009

In the Northern Gulf of California, Mexico, GIS Helps Visualize Marine Ecosystems

Understanding Spatial Dimensions Helps Small-Scale Fisheries


  • Multidisciplinary team collects and integrates local knowledge at a regional level.
  • Direct use of local knowledge is spatially integrated and validated using ArcGIS.
  • Environmental managers use GIS and information to design fisheries management plans.

The sun is rising over the Gulf of California as three fishermen depart for the day in their small fishing skiffs called pangas. Pinks, reds, and yellows fill the sky and reflect across the calm water as the men silently prepare their nets, with only the noise of the whirring engines filling the air. Like the thousands of other small-scale fishermen, these men come from a strong fishing tradition. Their fathers and grandfathers worked the sea, and they deeply understand its importance to their livelihood and culture. But unlike past generations, these men may never pull in a giant grouper or a totoaba once abundant in the region.

  click to enlarge
Map showing where fishing activities by communities overlap, resulting in high-use areas.

Recent declines in important marine populations around the world have alarmed fishermen and scientists alike. Unfortunately, the Gulf of California is no exception. Just south of the international boundary with the United States, the narrow gulf, separated from the Pacific Ocean by Baja California on the west and framed by the states of Sonora and Sinaloa, Mexico, on the east, is one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world. Important commercial species and rare animals, such as the Vaquita, an endangered species of porpoise, inhabit these waters.

The Gulf of California alone provides most of Mexico's fishery harvest and is a major supplier of seafood to the southwestern United States and eastern Asia. But fishing practices over the last 25 years have led to the near extinction of many important commercial species, and current practices will lead to the further exhaustion of important fisheries resources.

The need for an innovative and creative approach for fisheries management of the Gulf of California drove the formation of PANGAS. Named after the word in Spanish for a traditional fishing boat, the name Pesca Artesanal del Norte del Golfo de California: Ambiente y Sociedad means Small-Scale Fisheries of the Northern Gulf of California: Environment and Society. PANGAS is a collaborative effort involving Mexican and U.S. researchers in the biological, physical, and social sciences, as well as small-scale fishermen and other important stakeholders. Past failure in the management of small-scale fisheries in the Gulf of California and worldwide is due in part to approaches that have ignored the structure and connectivity among populations of marine organisms.

A primary gap has been the lack of integration with ecosystem, socioeconomic, and natural resources management in a GIS database. As a result of this necessity, the geospatial information component was established in the project. This component's primary goal and objectives include giving support to PANGAS partners, researchers, and stakeholders by providing tools to make sound decisions based on the best available information.

Through a university site license, researchers concluded that ArcGIS has the capacity for integrating in a standard-based platform complex data with a spatial and temporal component. The software also provides the tools for applying spatial analysis, managing data, and mapping the results of the biophysical and socioeconomic research. With ArcGIS Desktop, the complex spatial systems influenced by feedbacks between biophysical and human processes were addressed and analyzed.

To begin their monumental task, researchers of the PANGAS project took printed maps of the northern Gulf of California into 17 fishing communities. Over a period of a year and a half, the team interviewed and worked with local fishermen, creating hard-copy maps based on regional knowledge. These maps included the distribution of historical and actual fishing activities. More than 700 maps with information were compiled and digitized using ArcEditor and the Georeferencing toolbar. Once integrated, the information collected revealed details about the temporal and spatial aspects of fishing activities in the northern Gulf of California that were not previously understood. This resulted in a collection of local knowledge combined with recently collected scientific information, such as bathymetry and landmarks.

  photo of boats
Image of the traditional Mexican fishing boat called a panga, for which the project is named.

After the initial assessment, the team brought the compiled information back to two communities to validate the data previously collected. To small gatherings of 20 fishermen, a group of researchers presented the spatial distribution of the northern gulf fisheries. The fishermen were amazed when they saw the maps projected on the wall using ArcGIS Desktop and eagerly assisted in the validation and refinement of the information. The validation approach involved the introduction of ancillary information and utilized ArcEditor. PANGAS researchers were able to adjust the information in situ together with the fishermen. The approach capitalized on the analytical and visualization capacities of ArcGIS Desktop in order to facilitate the interactivity among workshop participants.

The geospatial information coordinator from PANGAS, Marcia Moreno-Baez, understands the importance of GIS to the project, stating, "It would be impossible to understand at this level, at this scale, the distribution of fisheries activities. We wouldn't be able to visualize the spatial dimension of fisheries activities in the northern Gulf of California without GIS."

PANGAS is comprehensively mapping the entire northern gulf's small-scale fisheries activities on a regional scale.

With ArcGIS Desktop, PANGAS has successfully visualized the spatial/temporal distribution of fishing activities and the social-biophysical linkage affecting this distribution. Now PANGAS is able to aid in the development of management recommendations for small-scale fisheries in the northern Gulf of California. In the near future, PANGAS will present its findings to fisheries managers, scientists, and government officials for decision-making purposes. ArcGIS Desktop has facilitated the decision-making process by helping design and develop management practices grounded in regional, biophysical, social, and political realities.

PANGAS is the first fisheries research project of this scale attempting to incorporate geospatial information and can only do so through the invaluable participation and time that small-scale fishermen of the northern Gulf of California, Mexico, devoted to this study.

More Information

For more information, contact Tad Pfister (e-mail: or Marcia Moreno-Baez (e-mail: or visit This study was made possible thanks to financial support from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation; the University of Arizona; the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnolog�a (CONACYT), M�xico; and the Wallace Research Foundation. This is a scientific contribution of the PANGAS project (

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