Can Mexico Reel in Vaquita Porpoise From Brink of Extinction?

By Emily Pickrell

Mexico is increasing its efforts to protect the highly endangered vaquita porpoise by expanding its protected habitat, yet still struggles to enforce fishing bans meant to keep the species alive.

The push to expand the vaquita refuge area in the Gulf of California, which the Environmental Ministry announced April 20, is a last-ditch effort to save the rapidly disappearing porpoise, whose numbers have been reduced to about 30 mammals.

The area where fishing is prohibited will expand to more than 1,841 square kilometers (711 square miles) of protected waters, up from 1,263 square kilometers (488 square miles), the government announced.

The expansion is one of the many recommendations from the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, made up of members of the Environmental Ministry and the Ministry of Fisheries.

‘More Profitable Than Cocaine Trafficking’

“We are doing everything we can to take care of them,” Environmental Secretary Rafael Pacchiano told Bloomberg Environment in an interview April 24. “There is not a single action that was recommended that we have not implemented.”

The illegal capture of vaquitas, however, has continued as a side consequence of the poaching of another endangered fish—the totoaba—in the same waters.

Totoaba are caught illegally with wide-sweeping gill net, which also sweep up vaquitas. Totoaba bladders command top prices in China because of their supposed medicinal properties, according to Alejandro Olivera, the Mexican representative for the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Because of the price the totoaba bladders can get, it is more profitable than cocaine trafficking,” Olivera told Bloomberg Environment. “The same methods for smuggling drugs are now being used for smuggling totoaba bladders.”

Gill Net Grab

Mexico has beefed up enforcement of the protected waters in the past two years, Pacchiano said.

The Environmental Ministry confirmed that the Mexican Navy required 150 boats to move out of the protected area in the past two months, and made 15 arrests. In addition, the ministry, the Navy, and the nonprofit Sea Shepherd Conservation Society were among those who removed 1,141 illegal gill nets from the waters.

Despite these efforts, new gill nets continue to appear in the water and “there is no indication that enhanced enforcement is being effective,” the International Union for Conservation of Nature reported last month.

Gulf of California fishermen are honoring the ban against gill nets, but outsiders motivated by high profits are not, claimed Claudia Olimon, executive director of Pesca ABC, an organization representing Gulf of California fishermen.

And while local fishermen are receiving compensation from the Mexican government for honoring the ban, speeding up the process of developing a suitable alternative fishing method is becoming more urgent.

“The local fishermen are interested in testing alternative fishing gear,” Olimon told Bloomberg Environment. “They want to continue fishing, but with better methods, where they can have a good catch but don’t kill the vaquita.”

Slow Enforcement

Enforcement of the existing prohibitions has been slow as well, plagued by a history of relatively light penalties.

“The great challenge for the Mexican Navy is that poaching totoaba was not considered an organized crime until April last year,” said Pacchiano. “Now it is considered organized crime and you could face jail time.”

Environmental groups monitoring the area applaud the expansion of the protected area, but criticize the Mexican government for inaction in the past.

“The current fate of the vaquita is an example of the lack of effective environmental regulation and the consequences, not only in the Gulf of California but in all of Mexico,” Mario Sanchez, northeast director of the Mexican Center for Environmental Law, told Bloomberg Environment April 25. “These steps should have been taken many, many years before.”