Back Forty: Reporting on a conservation collapse

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Fishermen in Teacapán, Sinaloa, Mexico. Photo by Esther Honig.

By Esther Honig

As journalists, we’re often tasked with finding our next story over the course of a few days, maybe a few weeks if we’re lucky, but every so often we’ll find a story that we wind up pocketing and carrying around for years. It fades in and out of relevance, until one day we find the perfect opportunity to tell it. Such was the case for my latest piece, White Gold Fever, produced for the podcast Snap Judgment in collaboration with FERN. 

It was mid-December 2019 and I’d just arrived in the rural, semi-tropical town of Teacapán, Sinaloa. I’d left winter and my home back in Colorado and planned to spend the next several weeks looking for good story ideas. Earlier that month, I’d resigned from my job as a reporter at a northern Colorado public radio station. I was burned out and ready to take a risk if it meant rediscovering the enthusiasm I once held for my work. With a degree in Spanish and Latin American studies, I had long dreamed of reporting in Mexico. Now was the time to make the move. I called up several freelance journalists who I admired to ask them for advice, packed my bags and decided I would start this journey in a familiar place. 

About two hours south from the city of Mazatlán on the west coast sits the small fishing town of Teacapán, which means “place of winds,” in the Indigenous language, Nahuatl. In many ways it’s a classic rural Mexican town with unpaved streets and an old adobe Catholic church at its center. A large stucco archway at the entrance to the town says, “Teacapán, town of fishermen,” which tells you most everything you need to know about the local economy. There are few restaurants and no grocery stores because people mainly catch or grow their own food. 

The first time I visited, I was just 16 years old and had come as part of a cultural exchange arranged by my public high school. I had less than a semester of Spanish and could barely manage to introduce myself, so in the hope of improving, I was assigned to live with a local family for two weeks. My host father was a fisherman and of their three kids, the oldest son was my same age and taught me the cumbia. Their mom laughed when she realized I didn’t know the right way to chop an onion and when I came down with a cold, she massaged my feet with Vicks Vapor Rub—a classic home remedy in Mexico. This was only my second time out of the United States and the experience was both wonderful and disorienting. Many years later, I can see how it influenced my life and continues to inspire my work as a journalist. 

I returned to Teacapán my senior year and stayed with the same family. Over the years we kept in touch, messaging each other over Facebook to celebrate birthdays, graduations and holidays. Now, more than a decade later, I called them up and they eagerly invited me back to their home, only this time I was returning as an adult and a journalist. 

Receiving communion in Teacapán. Photo by Esther Honig.

I spent the first few weeks in Teacapán lazily poking around for a story. I’d walk the town’s boardwalk and talk to the folks selling fresh oysters under palm shacks. I accepted every invitation to attend baptisms, quinceañeras and even woke up before dawn to photograph the men at the local bakery as they made pastries. Each morning my host father would take me to the beach where his crew would dock to unload their catch from a night spent fishing. It happened to be mackerel season, and because the fish are more active under moonlight the fishermen spent the night out in small panga boats in the open ocean. Seeing the men haul piles of silver fish on shore, I initially wanted to work on a story about overfishing and climate change; each year this town faces an increasingly precarious future as its fish populations decline. 

Every morning, with my recording equipment and camera, I’d interview various fishermen as they unloaded and weighed their catch. Almost all of them were older because their kids had given up on fishing and taken jobs in the nearby city. These men had been fishing for decades and could tell me what things used to be like, back when they could catch more fish than they could sell and the tidepools teemed with aquatic life. They shared their theories on where the fish had gone, but almost every time we broached the topic of overfishing they’d all bring up the story about the callo de hacha.  

Callo de hacha is one of the most expensive delicacies you can fish out of these waters. It’s a large scallop indigenous to the Gulf of California that’s sold at fancy restaurants in Mexico City and is even exported. As I recounted in White Gold Fever, 15 years ago a group of men discovered a massive colony of callo de hacha right off the shore of Teacapán worth millions of dollars. It was a classic tale of finding sunken treasure, in which the treasure hunters get more than they asked for; after this unimaginable discovery is revealed, the town, starved for money after a particularly bad fishing season, breaks into a frenzy, fishing as much callo de hacha as possible. At the center of this pandemonium is one fisherman who is trying desperately to talk everyone else into protecting the resource by fishing sustainably. 

I had long been familiar with the story of the callo de hacha, having heard it many years ago from my host brother. In my mind, it was one of those remarkable details that made Teacapán so special, like a chapter out of a magical realism novel. But at the time I couldn’t imagine ever finding the opportunity to turn the story into a piece of journalism, because it didn’t easily fit into what we consider “news.”  I uploaded the hours of interviews that I’d gathered to my hard drive and moved on to the next project. I filed the story away and nearly forgot about it. 

It would be another year and half before the story about the callo popped back into my mind. I’d been approached by Snap Judgment, a nonfiction storytelling podcast, to pitch ideas for a new episode. The podcast is known for fast paced, character driven stories of people doing remarkable things. Unfortunately, I’d spent most of my journalism career writing traditional news features, so the next week I scoured my mind for material. And then, like headlights on a dark highway, the story about the callo emerged. At the pitch meeting, editors accepted the story almost immediately. FERN joined the collaboration soon afterwards. 

For me, White Gold Fever is more than just entertaining, for buried within is also a lesson about the challenges of conservation. Environmental laws don’t work as intended and the authorities fail to save the resource they’re supposed to protect. But more importantly, everyday people are caught in the middle, in this case the fishermen. They are often painted as faceless villains, but they are actually parents and grandparents trying to provide for their families. I hope White Gold Fever helps listeners to see the nuances that exist in the fight to protect natural resources, especially among people living hand-to-mouth. 

The opportunity to tell this story from the fishermen’s perspective would not have been possible had I not cultivated a relationship with the town over a decade ago. My choice to return as an adult allowed me to rekindle old friendships. But it also reminds me that the stories that we hear and hold on to, sometimes for years, eventually can be the most rewarding.