To combat declining ocean health in the Gulf of California, Brandon Rus is creating a sustainable industry out of invasive algae.
Photos—Gabriel Flores and Micheal Borchard
The aquarium of the world: that’s what Jacques Cousteau called the Gulf of California. Tucked between the Baja California peninsula and continental Mexico, this expanse of ocean is one of the most biologically diverse marine environments on the planet. Its waters are home to creatures like blue whales, its islands are a critical habitat for seabirds, and its shores are nesting sites for sea turtles. Yet, like so many of the earth’s most beautiful and environmentally sensitive areas, the gulf is under threat.
One of the issues facing its coastline is sargassum: an invasive species of seaweed that has blanketed shores throughout Mexico. It crowds beaches and causes harm to ecosystems that are already in decline from unsustainable fishing practices, like gill trawling and bottom nets.
To address these challenges, marine biologist Brandon Rus created Conserva Collective, an organization that promotes ocean conservation and works with local communities to find sustainable sources of income.
Despite the harm it has caused, Rus believes sargassum itself could be part of the solution. He’s exploring ways to transform this seaweed into a sustainable source of income — one that could even benefit the environment.
For communities along the coast of Baja California, day-to-day life is entwined with the ocean. Fishing is a significant source of income, and local tourism depends on healthy beaches. “If things continue, the fishing communities who have depended on these waters for survival simply will no longer be able to sustain themselves,” says Rus. When ocean health is threatened, the livelihood of the people who rely on it is threatened as well.
Rather than coming in and trying to impose solutions, Rus takes a strict collaborative approach. “It’s about working alongside the community, the people who know these lands and waters best, and discovering together what the problems are and what the solutions could be,” he says. “Then, we provide as many resources as we can to empower them.”
Rus grew up next to the same Pacific Ocean, along the shores of Southern California. After college, he lived with a family in Agua Verde, a rural Mexican fishing community north of La Paz, in Baja California Sur, and saw how declining ocean health directly affected people’s lives. When Rus tells me about the peninsula’s coastal ecosystem and its people, his awe is evident. “There’s something special and sacred about Baja. I’ve always felt like I needed to contribute and give back to this place that I grew up visiting.”
Adopting a collective mindset
Conserva Collective has a range of projects, but its main focus is harvesting and finding uses for the invasive sargassum that has been washing up on beaches in unprecedented quantities. These dense blooms blanket the shores in leafy, brown tangles. Sargassum is beneficial in small amounts, since it creates an open-ocean habitat that acts as a refuge for fish, birds, shrimp, and other aquatic creatures. But in large quantities, the sargassum can smother corals, disrupt sea turtle nesting, and scare away tourists who are essential to local economies.
You’ll often find Rus walking along the coastline north of La Paz, patiently collecting the piles of sargassum that cover the sandy shores.
“It’s an invasive species, but through another lens, it’s also a resource,” Rus explains. “It’s abundant and high in nutrients . . . there could be some innovative possibilities here.”
Conserva Collective makes handmade soaps using sargassum, and funds from their sales support educational programs and other environmental initiatives. They also use sargassum harvests to gather data on the seasonal changes that occur in Bahía de la Paz.
The sargassum is collected, rinsed, sorted, and dried in Agua Verde, The algae are then combined with other natural ingredients to make soap in San José del Cabo. Conserva Collective sells these soaps locally in Baja California as well as internationally through sustainable clothing brand Industry of All Nations. The soaps are an experiment to see if this invasive weed can actually be part of the solution — by treating it as a resource and an alternative source of income for coastal communities.
Conserva Collective also partners with local scientists to incorporate ecological education into Baja California Sur’s school curricula. Through this initiative, students take field trips to La Duna, an ecological centre north of La Paz, where the sand dunes and wide coastline become an outdoor classroom to learn about biodiversity and the connections between ecological health and community.
Rus understands that scientific facts about species loss or habitat degradation only go so far and that storytelling is sometimes a more powerful tool. He worked alongside filmmaker Gabriel Flores to tell the story of Doña Emma, a line fisher and matriarch in Agua Verde, and her family. La Canción de la Familia shows how families in small fishing communities who depend on these waters for survival are now at the brink of collapse, because of decimated fish populations and few alternative sources of income. The film, set to be released in spring 2021, will raise funds for resources to support the fishing community of Agua Verde and other ecological projects.
For Rus, holistic solutions that approach environmental issues from a community perspective are critical. “It’s never just about the environment, or just about community,” he says. “It’s about how everything is intertwined.” We need to adopt a “collective mindset” — a way of thinking that requires us to consider the world beyond our own needs and beliefs, and remember that we are each a small, but significant, part of a larger whole.
Charlotte Boates is a writer based in Vancouver, Canada. Her editorial work focuses on telling stories about the connection between people and place. Her writing has appeared in independent publications like Tiny Atlas Quarterly, Roam Magazine, and HAMAM magazine.