If you stood on the top of a small craggy island called Isla Consag, in the northern Gulf of California, and spun yourself in a 360 degree circle without falling off the pointy summit, on a clear day you could see the entire habitat of a small 50 poundish harbor porpoise called la vaquita marina. Seeing the habitat is easy, actually seeing the porpoise itself would be a whole different story entirely.
The time for pretty words and happy press releases that commend Mexico on it’s most recent efforts to save vaquitas from extinction must come to an end. It is time to be truthful about why vaquitas are were they are and where they will be in two years. The latest round of sugar coated press releases from various organizations are a good example of pretty words that congratulate and commend Mexico for finally imposing a ban, although only two years, on all gill nets from the Vaquita habitat. NGO’s who commend Mexico for waiting until the Eleventh-hour to actually take proper action in regards to saving this desert porpoise are doing themselves and Vaquita a huge disservice.
In stead of commending Mexico what NGO’s and the public should be doing is castigating them for waiting so long to act and publicize the embarrassing answer to the following question.
Why, after roughly 30 million dollars and ten years of huge conservation effort, are there now less then 100 Vaquita Marinas (27 of them females) left in the upper Gulf of California?
Let us also remember that the less than 100 number is actually just an estimate, the true number could be a bit higher or frighteningly lower than this 100 animal estimate.
The uncomfortable answer to that nagging “why they are on the brink” question will be crucial to saving Vaquita. The graph below says a lot. Between 2011 and 2014 the population of Vaquitas dropped by roughly half.
This graph comes from the 5th meeting of The International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, or CIRVA. CIRVA is a committee of international experts convened by the Mexican Government to advise it on how best to save Vaquita. Basically CIRVA has been telling the government for years what they must do to save Vaquita. And it is not as if the government has not taken some advise from CIRVA and turned it into a reality, because it has. For example, a vaquita refuge has been set up and within the range of their habitat and within the refuge no commercial fishing is allowed. The size of the habitat is also set to double this year and of course the big news is the two year ban on all gill net fishing in the upper gulf. But there are other many other recommendations that CIRVA has made that the government is not addressing.
So when we look at where we are today we must be truthful on the; How has it all gone so wrong question?
The simple answer is that Mexico has refused to get rid of gill nets and has been incapable of enforcing the no commercial fishing ban inside the refuge. Any gill net has the potential to kill vaquita but the two most lucrative fisheries that most likely have the greatest impact are the shrimp fishery and the illegal totoaba fishery. Totoaba is a large fish of the Croaker family. Before over fishing devastated their numbers a totoaba could weigh several hundred pounds. One air bladder alone from a totoaba can earn an illegal fisherman in Mexico one thousand dollars. You can imagine what that air bladder costs by the time it gets to China where totoaba air bladder soup is said to have great medicinal properties.
It’s no wonder that drug cartels are now involved in the illegal totoaba fishery, which is the main culprits for the demise of vaquita.
When fisherman set nets for totoaba they leave under the stealth of night. The gill nets are then set and left in the water for up to 48 hours. Unsuspecting vaquitas get caught in them and die almost immediately from shock. Shrimp fisherman on the other hand set their gill nets, leave them in the water for an hour or so, pull them up, take out the shrimp and then set them all over again. The legal shrimp fishery still kills vaquita marinas as well. Any gill net that is placed in the water has the potential to kill a vaquita marina. The government department of fisheries CONAPESCA, has completely dragged its heels in implementing a style of fishing with trawl nets that would reduce vaquita mortality in the lucrative shrimp fishery of the upper gulf. The other big problem regarding gill nets is another species of fin fish called the Gulf corvina (Cynoscion othonopterus). Between the 1 of February and the 30 of April gill nets can be used to encircle spawning corvina. There is a great fear that these nets could be used to illegally fish for totoaba at other times of the year. CIRVA has proposed that corvina nets and any other type of gill net may not be allowed to be transported on land or on sea. CIRVA believes corvina nets should be kept under lock and key from 1 May until 31 of January if proper enforcement of the gill net ban is to be taken seriously.
The images below were taken from one day of illegal fishing within vaquita refuge, on December 5, 2014
In 1991 the International Whaling Commission (IWC) made its first recommendations to Mexico on how to save vaquita. One of the top recommendations was “take immediate action to stop the illegal shipment of totoaba across the US border”. It was almost as if the IWC was able to look into their crystal pall to foretell that Mexico would be incapable of stopping the illegal totoaba fishery so why not focus on stopping exportation to the US. Since the reality is that the government agency that is responsible for enforcing Mexican fisheries laws PROFEPA has pretty much dropped the ball on stopping the illegal totoaba fishery. If you read the 5th CIRVA report that was published in 2014 PROFEPA did not even send a representative to the meeting to report on how much illegal fishing activity it had stopped. Confidential sources that I have spoken to claim that corrupt officials from PROFEPA regulate the price of totoaba air bladders on the black market. This authors direct experience with PROFEPA has been no different. Back in 2013 months were spent coordinating an interview with officials from Mexico City. Our goal was to speak with the head of PROFEPA in San Felipe for a video report on vaquita. When I was finally given the green light to interview the official in San Felipe he refused to see me. I was not even allowed to film inside the PROFEPA compound in San Felipe and a PROFEPA inspector purposely tried to intimidate me while I was filming out side of the chain link fence where the PROFEPA compound is located.
I am of the opinion that there are two main reasons that Vaquita Marinas are going extinct. The most obvious being that governmental agency’s in charge of enforcement have clearly not tried hard enough to protect the species on the water. Some would argue they have not tried at all. The other reason is more troubling and pervasive in the small town of San Felipe. Local fisherman don’t care about vaquita. Fisherman would actually be happier if the animal went extinct tomorrow.
The second week of March marked something new regarding Vaquita conservation. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, apparently by request but from whom that request was made from is unknown, has decided to get into the vaquita game. It may be to little to late but we can only hope that it is not. Sea Shepherd on their three visits into the vaquita refuge since the beginning of March have observed massive illegal fishing within the refuge. They have also witnessed the navy intervening as well.
If history be our guide and Vaquita conservation is left solely up to the Mexican government, especially enforcement or should I say the lack there of in regards to illegal fishing, as it has been for that last 10 years, it is game over for Vaquita. It is crucial that independent agencies monitor the gill net ban. The lions share of work in regards to inspection for the next two years will be on the Mexican navy and their three new interceptor patrol boats to enforce the no fishing ban. Satellite imaging and the use of drones will be important as well. But who over the next two years is going to start educating the local fisherman that it is in their best interests that they stop killing vaquitas? This is were we hope our non profit, WorldsAquarium may be able to help.