White gold fever

The discovery of a massive bed of callo de hacha, a prized scallop, could have saved a struggling Mexican fishing village. It didn't work out that way.

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Belen Delgado was 10 years old when his father taught him to fish, and he has dedicated his life to the industry. With a degree in fish biology, he has worked to teach other fisherman about the importance of conservation.

Editor’s note: There are two stories in this ‘Mother Nature’ episode of the Snap Judgment podcast. White Gold Fever is first, and starts at the 5:44 mark.

In Teacapán, a small fishing village on the coast of Sinaloa, Mexico, Belen Delgado made a discovery that would change his life and the lives of everyone he knew. It was 2007, and years of overfishing had depleted the local supply of fish. The town’s fishermen were struggling to provide for their families and businesses failed as the local economy dried up. That’s when Belen caught his first glimpse of the callo de hacha, a large, black scallop that’s one of the most prized species in the Gulf of California. Belen heard that a shrimp boat had snared a callo de hacha in its net, and he decided this could only mean one thing: that a massive bank of the valuable shellfish sat just off the town’s shore. Such a discovery could revitalize Teacapán and allow it to prosper for years to come. But reaching the ocean floor was only the first challenge; if there really were treasure there, Belen would have to protect it.

Native to the Sea of Cortez, callo de hacha is a rare species of scallop and is named for its large black, hatchet-shaped shell (hacha means hatchet in Spanish). Inside is a tender white scallop the size of a silver dollar that’s prized throughout Mexico. Photo by Cathy Brundage.

Belen Delgado on the beach near where, 15 years earlier, he helped discover a massive bank of shellfish, called the callo de hacha. Considered a delicacy, the callo is one of the most valuable species in the region and Belen’s discovery was worth millions of dollars.

Fishing boats sit in the estuary of Teacapan, Sinaloa. This estuary was once a thriving ecosystem, but overfishing and chemical runoff from nearby farms have destroyed it. Now the local fishermen are forced to fish out in the open ocean, which is more dangerous and expensive.

Fishing used to support Teacapan. Today, nearly all the young men and women are forced to leave to find work in bigger cities or even the U.S.

Mackerel, also called sierra in Spanish, is the preferred fish for making ceviche in Teacapan.

Men in the small fishing village of Teacapan, Sinaloa, carry plastic crates filled with fish that will be weighed and shipped to larger markets. Thirty years ago, there was more fish than these fishermen could sell. Now, rising ocean temperatures and overfishing have made it increasingly difficult to earn a living.

After returning from an overnight fishing trip, this fisherman holds up his prized catch, el dorado, also known as a mahi-mahi. This fish is considered rare and will fetch a high price for its size.

In a small beach shack, a man weighs freshly caught mackerel. Next, the fish are packed in ice and shipped to markets all across Mexico.

A fisherman uses plastic thread to weave a new net that will be used for trapping fish. Skills like these are growing increasingly rare as fewer young men choose to join their fathers as fishermen.

Fishermen in the small town of Teacapan, Sinaloa, unload a particularly large catch, which is rare now that overfishing and rising water temperatures, caused by global warming, have depleted the local supply of fish.

Early in the morning, a fleet of fishermen arrive on the beach of Teacapan, Sinaloa. It’s mackerel season, and they unload their catch from the previous night spent out in the open ocean.

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