Ship Returns To Mexico’s Sea Of Cortez To Patrol For Illegal Fishing Nets That Threaten Endangered Porpoise

By Kendal Blust
Published: Wednesday, September 16, 2020 - 2:12pm

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Fishermen look for nets
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
Fishermen who belong to the cooperative Pesca ABC help look for nets that larger ships belonging to Museo de la Ballena or Sea Shepherd Conservation Society will then pull out of the water.

After six months away because of the coronavirus pandemic, a patrol ship has finally returned to the uppermost part of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. The ship is there to patrol for illegal fishing nets that can trap and kill a critically endangered porpoise.

The nonprofit Museo de la Ballena’s seven-person crew finally started patrolling the habitat for the nearly extinct vaquita marina porpoise again Saturday. Usually, the ship is this region of the Sea of Cortez, called the Upper Gulf of California, nearly all year to pull up fishing nets that can trap and drown the small vaquita. But they have been unable to return to the water since March because of the pandemic.

"They've practically been free to do their work, the illegals," said ship operations manager Henoch Rizo, referring to poachers to who use large nets to catch a huge, endangered fish called the totoaba, which is illegally trafficked to the black market in Asia where it is considered to heaving healing properties. The net used to catch the totoaba are considered the leading threat to the vaquita. Experts estimate there may be as few as 10 vaquita left.

Fishermen looking for nets
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
A fishermen hands a tracking device to a leader with the cooperative Pesca ABC that helps find nets that can trap and drown the vaquita marina porpoise.

Because poaching has been practically unchecked for the last six-months, Rizo said, the crew is working with a local fishermen's cooperative to find and remove nets left behind by poachers. They will also try to keep other fishermen from entering a zero-tolerance protected area for the vaquita, where the few remaining porpoises have been spotted in recent years. That’s especially important as shrimp fishing season starts later this month, and fills the area with small fishing boats, he said. Even legal fishermen are not permitted to drop nets in the protected area. But Rizo said they do not always know or recognize its boundaries.

Fishermen in the region have struggled to make a living under rules implemented to protect the vaquita, and because of trade embargoes that have limited their ability to sell the seafood they catch to the United States. The Mexican government formerly paid legal fishermen to stay out of the vaquita's habitat, recognizing the financial toll of the regulations on fishing communities. But those payments were unreliable during the last administration and have completely stopped under the current administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who took office nearly two years ago.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's activist crew also helps patrol and remove nets from the vaquita's habitat under normal circumstances, but their ships left the area in March when the pandemic started. A spokeswoman for the organization said crew members will be back this fall ahead of the high totoaba poaching season that starts in November, but a date for the return has not yet been set.

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