California Legislature Must Not Abandon the Vaquita

Vaquita

NOAA/Paula Olson

Will the California Legislature be added to the list of institutions that have failed the vaquita? Unfortunately, that's exactly what may happen if the California State Assembly
Committee on Appropriations doesn't pass Assembly Bill 1151 (the Vaquita-Harmful Fish and Fish Products Act) out of committee immediately. With fewer than 30 vaquita remaining and an annual decline rate of about 50 percent per year, the vaquita is the most endangered marine mammal on the planet and may be the most endangered animal in the world. The vaquita don’t have time for any more delay.

AB 1151 targets the sole threat to vaquita survival—the use of gillnets in and adjacent to the vaquita’s habitat. Vaquita get entangled and drown in gillnets used by commercial fisheries in the northern Gulf of California, Mexico. Vaquita specialists have determined that the use of gillnets in the upper Gulf is incompatible with vaquita survival. To help encourage a shift away from gillnets to vaquita-friendly gear and activities, AB 1151 makes it unlawful to sell, offer for sale, trade, or distribute any fish and fish products caught in the upper Gulf with any kind of gillnet. Limiting the lucrative California seafood market to only those products that are vaquita-friendly, California has the power to incentivize shifts in Mexico that will benefit the vaquita.

As noted by AB 1151’s author, Assemblymember Todd Gloria, “California can send a clear message of solidarity to the Mexican and international scientists, communities, and conservationists trying to save the vaquita from dying in gillnets. This bill helps ensure that Californians are not contributing to the vaquita’s extinction.”

Assemblymember Gloria’s latter point is key, as Californians unwittingly contributed to the vaquita’s decline for decades as they purchased shrimp from Mexico’s upper Gulf of California that was caught with vaquita-killing gillnets.

Mexican institutions and the U.S. federal government have repeatedly failed to take steps that would have helped halt the vaquita's decline. Different Mexican governmental entities, like the National Commission for Aquaculture and Fisheries, have been bungling their roles in vaquita conservation for decades. Corruption, staggering poverty, unanswered criminal activity, poor planning, lack of resources, and lack of political will have hobbled all of Mexico’s efforts (poorly conceived and executed from the start) to save the vaquita.

The United States federal government has made a lot of noise, especially in recent years, about the vaquita’s decline, but the United States has failed to use tools at its disposal, such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act’s import provisions, to apply economic pressure on Mexico to compel robust action to save the vaquita. The U.S.’s failure isn’t the same as Mexico’s. For example, it’s not about a lack of resources, but there are some parallels, especially in the category of political will. Thus, even though the United States had the power, in fact was legally required to do more to save the vaquita, it dithered.

Now, the California State Assembly has an opportunity to do something positive for the vaquita by signaling a commitment to the on-the-water changes (permanent ban of all gillnets) necessary for the vaquita’s survival. AB 1151 is not a silver bullet and is not without costs. Some importers, wholesalers, and restaurants may have to work a bit harder to ensure they are selling vaquita-friendly fish and fish products, potentially foregoing the sale of products from fisheries that are contributing directly or indirectly to the vaquita’s extinction. And the California Department of Fish and Wildlife may have to spend a bit of time monitoring Mexican fisheries regulations in the upper Gulf of California and work with importers and wholesalers to ensure compliance with AB 1151. To help save one of only six porpoise species in the world, this is a small price to pay.

The California State Assembly Committee on Appropriations has an opportunity to help save the vaquita. It should take it and pass AB 1151 out of Committee.

About the Authors

Zak Smith

Senior Attorney, Marine Mammals, Oceans Division, Nature Program

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