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In Mexico City, fishermen want to save the Aztec garden of Xochimilco

Ⓒ AFP – ALFREDO ESTRELLA – | Fishermen in the Aztec garden of Xochimilco, south of Mexico City, August 1, 2017

“There are not many fishermen here,” Roberto laments in his boat as two of his men throw nets to catch fish that harm Xochimilco, an Aztec garden and a green paradise in southern Mexico.

Roberto Altamirano, 42, is worried about the future of this 10,500-hectare country estate, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Its targets: Chinese carp and African tilapia, two invasive species.

Introduced in the 1970s, these fish for fishing have multiplied rapidly. They are now thousands and threatening to destroy their ecosystems.

Now, if Xochimilco disappears, it is estimated that the temperature of Mexico would rise to four degrees.

This tangle of aquatic labyrinths, dotted with rudimentary buildings and visited each year by millions of tourists, is a lung for the ultra-polluted capital, but it is soiled by the wastewater of the megalopolis and nibbled by urbanization.

Ⓒ AFP – ALFREDO ESTRELLA – | Net fishing in the Aztec garden of Xochimilco, south of Mexico City, August 1, 2017

And to fight against harmful fish, only about 20 fishermen like Roberto survive.

In particular, they seek to prevent carp and tilapia from ringing the death knell of the axolotl, a small salamander that exists only at Xochimilco and whose eggs they devour.

– ‘The Last Fool’ –

Carp and tilapia “have been introduced as a possible resource for human consumption,” said researcher Maria Figueroa.

“But they have turned out to be invasive species and this is causing a problem.”

Already, clams and small crayfish have become almost impossible to find in these canals, which are 180 kilometers in length.

To fight against this scourge, Roberto responds with what he has done all his life: to fish.

Ⓒ AFP – ALFREDO ESTRELLA – | Fishermen in the Aztec garden of Xochimilco, south of Mexico City, August 1, 2017

“My grandfather is 98 and he taught me how to fish, and then we lost the tradition because at one time it was no longer profitable,” he says. “I am the last fool to practice it in the family!”

He set up eight years ago a group of fishermen who work to remove tons of carp and tilapia from the waters, then dry them, grind their flesh and make it into flour.

No inhabitant of Mexico would dare to eat them as they are, for they are suspected of being loaded with heavy metals.

Roberto and his troops can not stop their work, for otherwise the population of these species would continue to swell, which would devastate Xochimilco.

Ⓒ AFP – ALFREDO ESTRELLA – | A fish caught in a canal in the garden of Xochimilco

He remembers to have one day released nine tons of these pesky fish, a record for his team.

– The end of the axolotl? –

But their unbridled struggle is in peril.

There are fewer and fewer people ready to go fishing, discouraged by the prospect of rummaging through the rough waters of the canals in a ruthless sunshine and a meager salary of 2,600 pesos per month (about $ 145) the municipality.

“It’s hard to make a family live with that,” Roberto admits.

“When you stop fishing, it will be over with the fishermen here, because young people do not want to be interested in this any more. They prefer to work as a driver of a bike,” he says.

Next to him, 23-year-old Ramsés Coloapa tells AFP to fish “mainly because of the need to get out, to pay for food.”

Ⓒ AFP – ALFREDO ESTRELLA – | The Aztec garden of Xochimilco is a green lung for Mexico City

Roberto is distressed at the idea that the axolotl – a “water monster” in the Nahuatl language – is a creature that fascinates scientists for its ability to regenerate damaged organs such as the eye or brain.

According to Aztec mythology, the axolotl is the last incarnation of the god of the late Xolotl, the only one who refused to sacrifice himself to set in motion the Fifth Sun, the era of the creation of man.

“There was a local legend who said that on the day when the axolotl would be lost, it would be the end of Xochimilco”, the vestige quarter of Tenochtitlan, the pre-Hispanic city of Mexico, he recalls.

And “we are almost there” …

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