Mexico bans drift gillnets in Gulf of California in last-ditch effort to save vaquita

Mexico’s government and American aid groups are taking drastic actions to preserve the vaquita, a critically endangered species of porpoise endemic to the northern Gulf of California.

Scientists estimate there are only 30 individual vaquita remaining, all residing in the upper area of what is also known as the Sea of Cortez. The primary threat facing the vaquita are driftnets used by fishermen fishing illegally for totoaba, another endangered species highly valued in China for its supposed medicinal properties.

On 30 June, in response to the vaquita’s dwindling numbers, the Mexican government instituted a permanent ban on drift gillnets in the Gulf of California (previous versions of the ban had been temporary measures). In addition, the government established more stringent monitoring measures and made it mandatory for fishermen to report all fishing gear they lose in the area, according to the Associated Press.

Mexico had been facing mounting pressure to take more comprehensive action to save the vaquita, including from actor Leonardo DiCaprio and Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, as well as from international non-governmental organizations. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto posted several times on Twitter in June signaling he would enact more stringent measures to protect the vaquita, and shared a statement on the social media network after signing a memorandum of understanding committing to the gillnet ban.

“We have implemented a historic effort to avoid the extinction of a unique species, the vaquita marina, and to protect our ecosystem,” he wrote.

In response to the decision, on 6 July, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, which had been considering listing the Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California World Heritage site as “in danger,” granted a one-year delay in its decision to give the Mexican government more time to take additional actions to save the vaquita. The site is made up of 244 islands, islets and coastal areas in the upper Sea of Cortes and was created in part to protect the vaquita and totoaba.

Despite its actions, Mexico's government is still feeling heat from international groups and governments, including some lawmakers in the United States. A letter sent to U.S. President Donald Trump on 5 July, signed by 30 members of Congress, called for a partial ban on imports of fish and fish products from Mexico. The letter cites Mexico’s potential violation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act as legal justification. The lawmakers also urged the Trump Administration to certify Mexico pursuant to the Pelly Amendment to the Fishermen’s Protection Act of 1967, which would label the country as “conducting fishing operations in a manner that diminish the effectiveness of international fishery conservation.”

“Both actions would directly target the sole threat to vaquita survival – the use of gillnets in and adjacent to the vaquita’s habitat – and compel the Mexican government to take the kind of forceful actions necessary to save the species,” the letter said. “For decades, vaquita have become entangled and drowned in gillnets used by fisheries in their range, leading vaquita specialists to repeatedly conclude that the use of gillnets in the upper Gulf of California is incompatible with vaquita survival.”

The letter, which was sent from the office of U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman (D-California), was also sent to the Department of the Interior, the Department of Commerce, the Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA. It did not clarify what seafood imports the lawmakers would like to see banned, but in March, a boycott movement initiated by Animal Welfare Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Center for Biological Diversity targeted Mexico’s lucrative shrimp industry.

“For decades, Mexican officials have failed the vaquita, and now only the strongest of actions will get their attention. To save these wonderful little porpoises, we have to boycott Mexican shrimp,” Sarah Uhlemann, international program director with the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a March press release.

Zak Smith, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Marine Mammal Protection Project, praised Mexico’s initiative in making permanent the gillnet ban, but said it must go further. He commended the new requirements creating set embarkation and landing sites for all fishing vessels and the mandatory use of VMS for all small vessels, but specifically criticized an exemption to the ban for fisheries that use gillnets to encircle corvina and mackerel. In addition, a ban on the manufacture and sale of gillnets, a recommendation made by vaquita conservation experts, is not included in the new regulation, he said.

“Mexico has gotten very good at making commitments for vaquita,” Smith said. “But until Mexico achieves the one necessary change for vaquita survival – a gillnet-free habitat – they are managing the vaquita’s extinction, not its salvation.”

On 6 July, a rally organized by the Animal Welfare Institute and the Center for Biological Diversity took place in front of the Mexican Embassy in Washington D.C., and the organizations said in a press release it would continue to host protests in the United States and globally – with planned protests on 8 July, which they groups designated as International Save the Vaquita Day 2017 – to raise awareness of the vaquita’s plight.

Meanwhile, Mexico is also creating a plan for the worst-case scenario for the vaquita. Announced in conjunction with the gillnet ban, Mexico's government said it has devised a plan involving dolphins trained to help locate and capture the remaining vaquita in case a decision is made to capture and preserve them in a protected area, according to Smithsonian magazine.

Four dolphins trained by the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program would lead the remaining vaquita to conservationists so they could be transported to a penned-off marine sanctuary planned off the coast of San Felipe in the Sea of Cortez.

“We’ve spent the past year working alongside the U.S. Navy with a group of dolphins they had trained to search for missing SCUBA divers. We've been training them to locate the vaquitas,” Rafael Pacchiano, Mexico’s environment minister said. “We have to guarantee we capture the largest possible number of vaquitas to have an opportunity to save them.”

The round-up of vaquita is tentatively planned for September 2017, according to the Smithsonian.

“You are really getting down to the last few vaquitas,” Barbara Taylor, a conservation biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, said. “We can’t afford to be slow about this. We have to give this our mightiest effort as quickly as possible.”


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