August 25, 2016

Mexico and U.S. Presidents join forces to save the vaquita

In an unprecedented action last month, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and U.S. President Barack Obama announced a series of measures to save the critically endangered vaquita from sure extinction.

In 2014 the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) estimated that fewer than 100 vaquitas – a tiny species of porpoise – were left in the Upper Gulf of California, the only place on Earth where they are found. But a survey in 2016 showed that only 60 vaquitas remain; an overwhelming 40% decrease in just two years.

This came as a shock to everyone, since Mexico had already committed to some new measures to protect the vaquita. In April 2015, Mexico decreed a two-year ban on fishing activities throughout the vaquita’s range, and launched a compensation plan for the loss of income to fishermen, estimated at around $50 million dollars each year. The country also increased law enforcement efforts by inspectors from the Environmental Enforcement Agency, Fishery authorities, and the Navy using a brand new fleet of fast patrol boats, and drones for surveillance of the whole area. But with the latest population estimates, it looks like these measures haven’t been enough.

So what happened?

Despite New Protections, Many Threats to Vaquitas Continue

Mexican authorities underestimated the huge interest in illegal fishing for totoaba bladders for the Chinese markets. Totoaba is an endangered fish native to the Upper Gulf of California – the same waters as the vaquita. The fish’s bladders are sold in China for over $10,000 a kilo, which means that a fishermen can make more in just a few weeks of illegal fishing than they would fishing legally for the entire year.

There was one exception to the two-year fishery ban: Curvina (a type of croaker fish). Fishermen were allowed to continue fishing for curvina because the nets used to catch them don’t really affect vaquitas. But this exception gave illegal fishermen an excuse to use as a cover to gain access to the totoaba fishing grounds. If anyone asked, they could try to pass as curvina fishermen.

Even once fishermen have left the scene, they left behind another type of danger to vaquitas. Illegal fishermen use banned totoaba gillnets, which they lay under the cover of night. If the authorities spot them, the boats flee the area quickly, leaving their nets behind. These abandoned nets, often called “ghost nets,” continue to catch fish and still pose a threat to vaquitas, which can become entangled and drown.

Mexico had also begun the process of converting its entire shrimping fleet to vaquita-friendly nets, pledging that any others would be confiscated and destroyed. They also placed a ban on nocturnal fishing, hoping to further deter would-be totoaba fishermen. These were good steps forward, but clearly not enough to guarantee that vaquitas would be safe.

Between the active damage of illegal fishing and the quiet threat of abandoned nets, vaquitas continued to decline even while fishing was temporarily banned. Right after this year’s population survey was finished (after estimating only 60 vaquitas were left), three more dead vaquitas were found. Experts determined they had drowned in nets, leaving the dwindling number of vaquitas that much closer to extinction.

New Protections Only Work when Enforced

In this latest announcement, both Mexico and the U.S. doubled down to protect this tiny porpoise. Both nations declared a permanent ban on all gillnets in all fisheries in the Upper Gulf of California. They also pledged an increase in resources to enforce the new laws and crack down on illegal fishing and trade of totoaba, an increased cleanup effort to rid the waters of illegal gillnets and ghost nets, and the development of new vaquita-safe fishing gear.

Our team here at Defenders has been requesting a ban on all gillnets in the Upper Gulf for nearly a decade, so we are thrilled to see this finally take place. Sadly, the solution still isn’t perfect.

The gillnet ban will only address the legal side of fishing – those who are fishing illegally aren’t likely to pay much attention to it. And it has been estimated that 40-50% of the fleet fishing for shrimp, shark, mackerel, ray and other fin fish in the Upper Gulf are doing so illegally. Organized crime, which already had its hands in the region’s illegal totoaba fishery, has become more violent in recent years, and confrontations between armed illegal fishermen and police have resulted in deaths on both sides.

While it is also a positive step forward to have all legal ships outfitted with safer nets, allowing these vessels to legally fish in the vaquita’s area will provide cover for illegal fishermen seeking access to totoaba fishing grounds.

Although we applaud these new measures, there is an urgent need to make sure they can be enforced. We need much better surveillance and monitoring of fishing activities, which could be greatly helped by on-board observers, video cameras, and satellite monitoring systems. And the efforts shouldn’t only lie with Mexico and the U.S. We also need China to play its part by reducing demand for totoaba bladders. If prices fall far enough, illegal fishermen will lose interest in fishing for totoaba.

We are not satisfied and continue to request the measures cited above that would help guarantee the survival of the vaquita. We are lobbying Congress, fishery and environmental authorities for greater and more efficient enforcement of these protection measures, and we will lobby at the CITES meeting this September to ensure that international trade prohibitions for totoaba are enforced. We are hopeful that the joint announcement from the Presidents of Mexico and the U.S. signals their willingness to do what is need to save the vaquita. With so few vaquitas left, the situation certainly seems dire, but we still have time to save this beautiful species from extinction.

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