Conservationists, Fishermen Unsatisfied With Mexico’s Efforts To Protect Endangered Porpoise

By Kendal Blust
Published: Thursday, October 3, 2019 - 8:10am
Updated: Thursday, October 3, 2019 - 1:03pm

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Fisherman on a boat outside the town of San Felipe
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
Fisherman Ruben Orozco sits in the front of his small boat, or panga, outside the town of San Felipe in October 2018.

The Mexican government says it’s increasing enforcement efforts in the Sea of Cortez to prevent illegal fishing nets from harming an endangered porpoise. It comes a week after local fishermen announced they would buck a fishing ban this shrimp season. But the government's plan doesn't address their concerns.

Mexico’s environmental protection prosecutor says 600 troops will be arriving in the uppermost part of the Sea of Cortez to enforce a “zero tolerance” program. It’s part of an effort to protect the nearly extinct vaquita marina porpoise.

“It's a good sign, but it’s arriving very, very late because the vaquita has no time," said Alejandro Olivera, Mexico’s representative for the Center for Biological Diversity.

He says enforcement is necessary to protect the vaquita from illegal gilnets that can trap and drown the small porpoise.

There are currently only an estimated 10 vaquitas left in the Sea of Cortez. Illegal fishing nets used by poachers to catch a huge endangered fish called the totoaba are considered the main threat to the porpoise. But experts say other gillnets, like those used for shrimp fishing, also pose a risk.

However, keeping nets out of the water is not enough. Olivera said the government also needs to address the concerns of local communities who rely on fishing for their survival. That's not happening.

"The government, with this kind of decisions is pushing the fishermen to go out and fish illegally," he said.

vaquita refuge map
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
A map of the vaquita refuge and gillnet exclusion zone in the Sea of Cortez.

→ The Vaquita's Last Stand: The Struggle To Save The World's Rarest Marine Mammal

In the past, they have been paid a compensation not to fish in the uppermost part of the Sea of Cortez, where all gillnets have been banned since 2015. But that compensation hasn't been paid since President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) took office last December.

Fishermen have repeatedly sent letters and held meetings with environmental authorities in the AMLO administration, but have yet to get a response, said Lorenzo Garcia, president of the largest fishermen's federation in the town of San Felipe, Baja California. That led fishermen to take to the water again in March, leading to a skirmish between some fishermen and with authorities.

In a press conference Wednesday morning, leaders from fishermen's federations in San Felipe and Santa Clara said they have no choice but to go back to the water to fish this shrimp season, which started Sept. 24. They say the government has only approved a fishing method in the upper Sea of Cortez that doesn't work. So they will be using gillnets. But they say they are avoiding a smaller Vaquita Refuge area where the remaining porpoises are believed to be concentrated, and they say they are open using other fishing gear, as long as it works.

"We've proposed many solutions to the government that would protect the vaquita, but so far we haven't received any response," Garcia said during the press conference. "We have been nine months without any compensation."

They're asking for an official response for the government that responds to their needs and finds a balance between protecting the vaquita and the local communities.

"We know that for the vaquita to survive and thrive in the long term and in the future, we know it has to go hand-in-hand with the survival as well of the communities of the Upper Gulf (of California)," said Eva Hidalgo, the science coordinator for Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which pulls illegal nets from the Sea of Cortez.

She said Sea Shepherd hopes to work with legal fishermen, who agreed not to enter the smaller Vaquita Refuge area.

In the past, the only nets Sea Shepherd was worried about were illegal totoaba fishing nets, which they remove from any part of the protected area where gillnets are banned. But Hidalgo said they only plan to pull the nets of legal fishermen if they are in the Vaquita Refuge, and that hasn't been an issue so far.

"We hope that legal fishermen will keep collaborating with us on that," she said. "We know that they also really care about protecting the vaquita."

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