On December, 2010, we had an unexpected visitor to our farm: Richard D. Fisher, author of some of my favorite books about Mexico’s Copper Canyon and the Sea of Cortez, such as: “National Parks of Northwest Mexico”, and his latest “Copper Canyon: Chihuahua, Mexico”. Not only is the information on the books interesting and quite accurate, but they also have valuable historical, geological and ethnographic information and EXCELLENT PHOTOS. So, you may imagine my surprise when I met Richard in a Bus Tour group from our friends at “A Closer Look Tours”…I was honored to take the whole group to a complete tour of our pearl farm and –as usual- answer our visitor’s questions regarding the subject of pearls (one of these days I will write a Blog-post with the most common and interesting questions we’ve been asked), and guess who asked one of the “best questions” we’ve been asked over the years? Yes, it was Richard D. Fisher indeed, and the question was: “Did the Japanese really Poison the Sea of Cortez’s Pearl Beds in the 1940’s???”
Let us ponder on this story, so let us go back to the early years of the 20th Century…
From 1900 to 1920:
In those days, the Mexican Pearl Fisheries were still quite active throughout the Gulf of California, but mainly around the Southern tip of the Lower California peninsula (Baja California Sur), with La Paz acting as the main pearl trade-hub. Skin divers were still very much active in the fisheries, but after several hundreds of years of “pearling”, the pearl beds had become less plentiful, thus a new breed of diver was needed: the Helmeted Diver. And these were few in numbers but could work for hours and could go deeper than the typical skin diver, thus it was possible to find larger –older- oysters in deeper waters and fetch some larger pearls.
At the same moment, Dr. Gastón Vivés had his farm up and running quite successfully until 1914 when it was destroyed by the “Constitutionalist Army” during the Mexican Revolution. And from this moment on, the only pearls that could be obtained from these waters were the 100% natural pearls from wild-caught oysters (as opposed to the natural pearls from farm-raised oysters from Dr. Vivés’ black lip farm). And you may imagine that during a civil war people become even more impoverished and will have to resort to sacking their most valuable natural resources in order to obtain funds to sustain them…and this is what probably happened to the pearl beds in the area once the “Pearling Companies” (mostly Mexican, but some even from Great Britain and other parts of Europe) stopped their operations during and after the Revolution.
From 1921 to 1940:
This is a particularly bleak period for the pearl fisheries. The beds on the Baja California side had become commercially exhausted (meaning: no sense in fishing them anymore), but had time to “revive” on the mainland side (mainly in Sonora and Sinaloa). A couple of areas were particularly good “placeres” (name given to places were a given resource is abundant): the waters in front of Caborca and those around “Isla Tiburón”, were the fishery was conducted by the Seri Indian Nation. But in any case, the pearls were on the brink of becoming a legend…then, complete disaster struck the area: in 1939 a “mysterious disease” was traveling from the northern part of the Gulf of California, moving southwards and killing every single black lipped pearl oyster, leaving just empty shells which were identified by the local fishermen due to their silvery shine…
By 1940 the few remaining pearl beds in the Gulf had been decimated and the Cortez Pearl became the newest addition to the vast collection of Mexican fables, stories, myths and legends.
The Japanese Conspiracy Theory
In the late 1930’s most Mexican people were not really thinking of the future “space race” nor with “little green men” and had little interest in such “conspiracy theories”…but this does not mean that our fishermen lacked from imagination nor ideas. They actually began to wonder what some boats with “rising sun” flags and men from a different language and race were doing inside their Gulf…and these men seemed quite suspicious: they anchored here and dropped little devices into the water, retrieved them and then moved to another spot and repeated the process and, yet, they never seemed to fish anything! Also, instead of the friendly exchange of products (cigars, gas, bait, etc.) that they seemed to enjoy with other fishermen –regardless of nationality- these guys were overly serious and would not trade a thing!!! They must be up to some mischief indeed!!!
Back in 1939, many Mexican fishermen still remembered the importance of their pearl fisheries and considered the local pearl oysters as a useful food & shell resource that might reward them with a very valuable gem…if they were truly lucky. Some people had heard that the Japanese had begun producing cultured pearls and that they seemed to be unparalleled in their ability to produce them; still, many believed that cultured pearls were no match to the “real thing” (the natural pearl) and that Mexico would once again become a major league player in the World’s pearl markets.
So, add ingredient #1 (the presence of “tricksy” Japanese in the Gulf) and ingredient #2 (the Return of the Mexican Pearl) and you basically have created a plot, a Japanese conspiracy to POISON the Sea of Cortez and destroy any possible rival for the Japanese Cultured Pearl: the Japanese vessels were dropping poison into the pearl beds to kill their opponent before it had a chance to get back on its feet. And you wouldn’t believe how many people heard of this plot, and how many talk about it as a certifiable truth: people from Guaymas, from La Paz, from Hermosillo, from Mexico City…everyone!
Now, is there any truth in this plot? Could the Japanese have really killed off the pearl beds?
The Facts and the Myths
It is a fact that many Japanese vessels with Japanese men were in the Sea of Cortez in the late 1930’s, and they were definitively up to something, but it is highly unlikely they were sent on a mission to kill pearl oysters. Why? Because with the technology available in those days it is very unlikely they could have possessed a toxin or poison made specially to kill pearl oysters…any other poison must have killed other creatures as well: all sorts of clams, snails and maybe even fish that the fishermen would have noticed. But no it did not. Even today (2011) I am not aware of a toxin that will only kill pearl oysters…and I hope it is never invented!
So, what were the Japanese doing here if not killing oysters?!?! Well, check your timeline and you will notice that the “Pacific War” officially begun in December 17th, 1941 and Japan went into war with the United States of America, Mexico’s northern neighbor. So, could it be possible that the Japanese were taking depth measurements of areas in the Sea of Cortez??? Could they possibly have planned an attack into U.S. soil from Mexico in order to avoid the heavily defended California coast??? It does sound as a possibility…doesn’t it? Unfourtunately I don’t have any information on this subject…so let us hope that Wikileaks will produce these in a couple of years.
What caused the Mass Mortalities???
This is also an interesting subject. The “official” explanation given by the Mexican Government was that it had been caused by an unknown epidemic (epizootic disease), but they never gave any scientific proof to the fact or they just wanted an easy explanation to what seemed to be a lost cause, because from that moment on (1939) the Pearl Fishery was considered officially closed and a fishing ban was imposed on the capture or fishery of the Mexican Black Lipped Pearl Oyster (Pinctada mazatlanica).
But there were other interesting things happening at the same time, such as…the operation of the United States’ great “Hoover Dam”. Let me place a quote from Wikipedia’s here to further explain:
The changes in water use caused by Hoover Dam’s construction has had a large impact on the Colorado River Delta. The construction of the dam has been credited as causing the decline of this estuarine ecosystem. For six years, after the construction of the dam and while Lake Mead filled, virtually no water reached the mouth of the river. The delta’s estuary, which once had a freshwater-saltwater mixing zone stretching 40 miles (64 km) south of the river’s mouth, was turned into an inverse estuary where the level of salinity was higher close to the river’s mouth.
The Colorado River had experienced natural flooding before the construction of the Hoover Dam. The dam eliminated the natural flooding, which imperiled many species adapted to the flooding, including both plants and animals. The construction of the dam decimated the populations of native fish in the river downstream from the dam. Four species of fish native to the Colorado River, the Bonytail chub, Colorado pikeminnow, Humpback chub, and Razorback sucker, are currently listed as endangered.
If “Hoover Dam” began operating in 1936 and it is known that 6 years later (1942) there was no more fresh-water flowing unto the Gulf of California, then we can begin to imagine the environmental consequences. The “Colorado River” had its waters discharging into the Gulf for millions of years and then…kaput! No more water for you! So, what are the possible consequences: the impact was felt almost immediately on the Gulf’s northern region and its wetlands, but the effect had to creep down as the lack of freshwater made the Gulf of California “saltier” (the “average” salinity of the world’s ocean is 3.5%, with that of the Sea of Cortez being almost 3.6%) and a higher salinity level usually means less dissolved oxygen (which marine animals will use to breathe from the water). Besides this fact we can imagine that many other substances came with the river’s waters, including silt and many minerals…all these possibly very important to sustain a variety of marine plants and microscopic algae, creatures that are considered the basis of most marine ecosystems.
You may say “but the river’s water stopped flowing in 1942 and the oysters died in 1939!!!”, and yes…that is a fact, but the fact remains that there was less water available each year since the dam’s inauguration and by 1939 this was already causing havoc on our local ecosystems.
Have we finally pinpointed the truth to this dire plot or conspiracy theory? Not at all. I believe that there is still much to be done to reach this point, but a possibility would be that we could have indeed had a negative effect from “Hoover Dam” and this combined with the overfishing of the pearl beds and maybe we even had an epidemic or –just to make matters worse- an unknown environmental change. In any case: the Japanese are not to blame. They did not poison the Sea of Cortez to kill off a potential commercial threat.
I would also like to point out that I am in no way now blaming the American people for this disaster (we played our own part in this tragedy), and in those days (1930’s) few people knew or cared or understood how significant something like this truly was. Even now, few Nations are willing to consider Nature as a “User” of a given natural resource. In the meantime, we might speculate that our pearl oysters have had time to adapt to their “new” environment and –if given the opportunity- they will be able to repopulate our waters once more.