NGOs blast Mexico’s new vaquita preservation plan

Published on
July 19, 2021
The endangered vaquita porpoise population is estimated to be around just 10 animals.

Marine wildlife advocates and scientists have expressed concern over the Mexican government’s recent move to ease enforcement in a key habitat for the endangered vaquita porpoise.

Earlier this month, Mexico’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development – through the National Commission of Aquaculture and Fisheries (Conapesca) – announced “new indicators, triggering factors, and actions for verification, surveillance, and supervision of small and large vessel fishing activities in the northern Gulf of California,” where vaquita are endemic. The new plan was formulated to preserve the vaquita population, which has dwindled to an estimated 10 porpoises, and curb illegal totoaba trafficking, the ministry said in a press release.

Several NGOs, however, argue that Mexico’s course of action will have the opposite effect on the endangered species, hastening its extinction rather than thwarting it.

“Mexico’s new plan essentially converts a 'zero tolerance area' (ZTA) where fishing is banned to a complicated enforcement zone with varying levels of deterrence, surveillance, and monitoring depending on the amount of illegal fishing detected by authorities,” the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) said in a separate press release.

Under the government’s new plan, only 60 percent of Mexico’s available enforcement resources will be dispatched in the northern Gulf of California “if no more than 20 boats are spotted in the ZTA,” NRDC said.

“If 20 to 50 illegal boats are found in the ZTA, the government will only commit 80 percent of its available enforcement capacity,” NRDC added.

Center for Biological Diversity Senior Scientist Alejandro Olivera called the Mexican government’s plan “silly,” noting that officials “will be wasting precious time counting vessels within an area where ‘zero’ fishing is supposed to be tolerated.”

“They won’t even bother fully enforcing the fishing ban until 50 illegal boats are detected in this small area," Olivera said.

Gillnets are largely responsible for entangling and drowning vaquitas, according to NRDC and the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission, which said in its June report that “the vaquita population edges closer to extinction caused by gillnet entanglement and ineffective fisheries management and enforcement measures in the Upper Gulf of California.”

The gillnets have been used in Mexico over the last 25 years to catch totoaba, a critically endangered fish whose swim bladders are in high demand in Asia, and other species like shrimp, NRDC said.

Animal Welfare Institute Marine Wildlife Consultant Kate O’Connell agrees that fisheries mismanagement is ushering the vaquita population towards its end.  

“Mexico’s fisheries officials are mismanaging the vaquita to death, driving the species to extinction,” O’Connell said. “The Mexican National Fisheries and Aquaculture Commission and the National Fisheries Institute have ignored expert scientific advice for decades and have allowed illegal fishing to continue unabated.”

NRDC said Mexico’s updated enforcement protocol is not strong enough to deter illegal fishers.

“Mexico’s new enforcement scheme also includes a series of weak ‘triggers’ based on how frequently illegal fishing boats are detected in the ZTA. For example, officials will ban fishing in an area wider than the ZTA for seven days only if 60 illegal boats have been detected in the three times in one month. This incredible number of boats will only hasten the vaquita’s decline,” the NGO said. “Moreover, it is unlikely that Mexico will even enforce these minimal fishing regulations, given that authorities have failed for decades to control illegal fishing in the ZTA and the larger vaquita refuge.”

The country’s ability to “suddenly be able to enforce a more complicated ban on fishing under this new scheme” is “sheer fantasy,” Olivera said.

“Mexico has implicitly telegraphed its intent to allow the vaquita to go extinct by continually embracing inadequate half-measures which have never been effectively implemented or enforced,” Zak Smith, a senior attorney at NRDC, said. “This latest announcement transitions Mexico’s stance to an explicit affirmation that the only way it sees out of its vaquita problem is the quick extinction of the species.”

Mexico has faced increased international pressure to preserve the vaquita species in recent years. In 2020, the U.S. expanded its ban on the import of fisheries products, including shrimp, from the vaquita’s habitat.

“This is exactly how the law protecting marine mammals is supposed to work: if Mexico’s fisheries kill vaquita at a rate that violates U.S. standards, the U.S. must ban imports," Smith said in March 2020. “Mexico has no choice but to eliminate the destructive fishing taking place in the northern Gulf of California that is driving the vaquita to extinction. It’s the only hope the vaquita has for survival, and it is required if Mexico wants to resume exporting these products to the United States.”

Vaquita numbers were estimated to be the 560 range in the 1990s, falling sharply since then to 19 in August of 2019 and approximately 10 today.

Photo courtesy of Thomas A. Jefferson/National Resources Defense Council

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