The Cleofas Project

The Tres Marias Archipelago is an island group located 50 nautical miles off the coast of Nayarit, Mexico. In 1905, then president of Mexico Porifirio Diaz placed the islands under federal jurisdiction for use as a federal penitentiary and established a 12 mile restricted area around the islands for security purposes. For over 100 years now, the restricted area has created a very unique situation in that both the marine and terrestrial habitats are in a comparatively pristine state. In fact, relative to the terrestrial fauna, there are more endemic (native) species per square meter than the Galapagos Islands! For this reason the islands were named a “Biosphere Reserve” by the World Heritage Foundation in 2000 and remain an area of major interest and importance in both scientific and conservation communities, however the extreme difficulty in obtaining permits to access the archipelago has limited nearly all scientific research and conservation efforts.

In 2002 however, a permit was obtained and an extensive terrestrial biological study was performed on each of the islands by a Mexican conservation group known as Grupo de Ecologia y Conservacion de Islas (hereafter referred to as GECI). The purpose of the study was to identify all flora and fauna on the islands, the remaining endemic species, as well as identifying the invasive species that had been accidentally introduced. The final report catalogued all flora and fauna on the islands and also the invasive species threatening the delicate environment. The conclusion of the study stated: “This report on the status of the Tres Marias waves a red flag…the biodiversity on these islands is in trouble, and an introduced animal removal project should commence as soon as possible.” (see report “The Tres Marias of Mexico: a Biodiverse Archipelago Threatened by Introduced Mammals”).

On July 30, 2003, less than one year after the study was published, Grupo Cleofas, a U.S. Non-Profit Corporation was formed to aid and support the efforts of GECI, specifically those aimed at the conservation and restoration of the Tres Marias. Since that time small amounts of financial support has come from a variety of donors, both individual and corporate, who understood the importance of the islands and the conservation work of GECI, however as of this date the actual terrestrial restoration project has not been accomplished.

In June of 2007 GECI planned an expedition that included the use of the Motor Vessel Royal Pelagic (a 128’ converted Alaskan crabber) which could be used as a logistical support vessel by GECI at the Tres Marias. It was determined by GECI that a vessel such as the Royal Pelagic would be a valuable tool, comfortably housing scientists offshore as they executed the plan for restoration of Isla Cleofas (smallest of the islands), which involved the removal of a feral goat population that had been illegally let loose on the island in 2002. This project was planned for the fall of 2007 (see La Restauracion de Ecosistemas de las Islas en el Noroeste Mexico) and in fact a permit was issued on August 24, 2007. Unfortunately, the expedition was never realized due to Royal Pelagic mechanical difficulties and then the economic collapse in the U.S. in 2008. Since that time the vessel has been “dry docked” in Ensenada and the project was postponed indefinitely.

In September of 2010 Grupo Cleofas met with Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientists Dr. Octavio Aburto Oropeza and Dr. Brad Erisman to discuss the possibility of collaboration relative to the study and conservation of the Tres Marias. Obviously their (Scripps) interest would be in the marine environment surrounding the islands. We also discussed a mutual interest in filming a documentary, the focus of which would be the complete restoration and conservation of the Tres Marias Islands incorporating both marine a terrestrial themes into the film. Dr. Aburto Oropeza had just been recognized by National Geographic and the Mexican Government for his efforts resulting in the complete restoration of a marine habitat in Cabo Pulmo Baja, California. He expressed a strong interest in studying the Tres Marias Archipelago as there is little or no information relative to that marine environment due to the restricted access issues discussed above. During our meeting he indicated that the Mexican government had funded Scripps scientists to do a preliminary baseline study and it was scheduled for November 10-28 of 2010. Interestingly, Grupo Cleofas had combined efforts with another California non-Profit known as Seathos and obtained permits to film a trailer for our documentary “Restoration of Island Ecosystems” and coincidentally we were going to be out there at approximately the same time. Also, during our meeting, Scripps scientists discussed the need for future follow-on expeditions to their planned November trip and expressed a sincere interest in collaborating and using the Royal Pelagic as a dive vessel if it was available in the future.

The November 2010 Scripps expedition was a complete success, using the donated 95’ vessel Rocio del Mar, 13 divers dove over 30 sites (4-5 dives/day each), catalogued over 500 species of marine flora and fauna, and came up with an intricate management plan for the Tres Marias that was delivered to the Mexican Government. They discovered a variety of species of fish and fan corals not thought to be present in the area, but also realized that it was just the tip of the iceberg and much more work would be necessary to finish cataloguing species, but most importantly in the area of understanding the movements of top predators (sharks) and pelagic species (tuna, marlin, sailfish etc) in and around the islands.

Grupo Cleofas’ filming expedition was cut short due to weather issues and the film we did take was not adequate for the documentary trailer. Unfortunately, on the trip I contracted a staph infection in my spine and shoulder that required major surgery. I was hospitalized January 10-17, 2011, and went through intense physical therapy during all of 2011. During that period I spent some time revising the documentary concept to showcase businesses, educational organizations, and individuals who actually “do something” for the environment. The film would still focus around the conservation efforts directed toward the Tres Marias, but would now include Scripps Institute and their work in the marine environment in addition to GECI. The intention of the documentary has always been to raise funds and awareness for ongoing conservation and management efforts of groups such as GECI and Scripps and for the protection of unique environments like the Tres Marias.

From January 2011 until July 2012 the documentary and all conservation work out at the Tres Marias was put on hold as the Royal Pelagic remained in dry dock in Ensenada. However on July 10, 2012 I received a call from the owner of the Royal Pelagic. He indicated that the vessel was going back in the water and could be available once again for the project at the Tres Marias as long as Grupo Cleofas covered operating costs. This was incredibly great news as this is an opportunity to finally accomplish a project set in motion nearly 10 years ago!! I immediately contacted Drs. Erisman and Aburto to see what their status was and they were still very interested. They indicated that the Tres Marias was still extremely high on their objectives list and they not only needed to continue their baseline and biomass assessments, but they also needed to implement a satellite tagging program aimed at tracking pelagic fish species that was authorized by the Mexican government and could begin in January 2013.

On August 22, 2012 I personally met with Drs. Aburto and Erisman at Scripps in La Jolla to further discuss contractual and logistics issues. We agreed that in exchange for making the Royal Pelagic available to Scripps divers and scientists for a six month period, they would process the access permit and also make available video and photographic materials taken during the expeditions for the purpose of producing the aforementioned documentary. They also agreed to allow key donors to “participate” in the fish tagging operation and/or dive expeditions out at the Tres Marias. During the August 22 meeting we also approved a draft agreement between Grupo Cleofas and Scripps associate organization Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation (CMBC). This agreement will be signed prior to acceptance of funds and pending approval of the expedition schedule.

To our past donors we are thankful for your continued support and patience. Of course all donations to Grupo Cleofas are tax deductible. We would appreciate your response and whether or not you would be interested personally participating in the dive or tagging aspects of the project.

Best regards,

Greg Alker
Director, Grupo Cleofas

Support Grupo Cleofas – Donate Today!

Help Grupo Cleofas participate in the effort to study and preserve the Tres Marias archipelago!

Grupo Cleofas is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Your donation is tax-deductible.