For years, people have been working furiously to save the vaquita—a small porpoise species found only in the northernmost part of the Gulf of California. Today, fewer than 100 individuals remain and they are declining at a rate of 18.5 percent per year. If we do not reverse this trend immediately, the vaquita will be extinct as early as 2018, going down in history as the first cetacean species found only in North America to disappear forever from the planet. Fortunately, Mexico can stop this from happening. Will it? We’ll find out when it announces a new plan to save the species on November 27. More than 30 groups have called on the President of Mexico to ensure the plan is aggressive and pulls out all the stops to save the vaquita.
We know what’s wiping them out: drowning after getting entangled in gillnets. And we know the two fisheries largely responsible: an illegal fishery for the endangered totoaba fish and a legal fishery for shrimp. The solution is to immediately ban the use of gillnets in all vaquita habitat, helping legal fishers to transition to vaquita-friendly gear and ferreting out and crushing the illegal totoaba fishery.
Great! Identify problem—vaquita going extinct; identify cause—gillnets; identify solution—ban gillnets. Sounds easy, right? Maybe on paper, but the reality is something quite different. We’ve known about this problem for years and the Mexican government has been trying to reverse the decline, without success. Unsurprisingly it’s difficult to crush an illegal fishery that has the backing of drug cartels and is supplying demand for fish-bladder soup in Asia. And the shrimp fishery has continually resisted change, often with the support of Mexico’s National Fishery and Aquaculture Commission. Thousands of families in the upper Gulf of California depend on fishing for their livelihoods and it takes time and effort to change traditions and cultures. Time the vaquita does not have.
Photo credit: Paula Olson (NOAA Contractor)
It’s been reported, in recent weeks, that the Mexican government has reached an agreement with fishermen to institute a two-year ban on fishing in the northern Gulf of California. That would be brilliant news, if true. Of course, the devil’s in the details. What exactly will be banned? All gillnets, or just gillnets in certain areas? Will it apply to all fisheries, or just shrimp? What enforcement steps will be taken to back up the ban? How does the ban fit into a strategy to eliminate the illegal totoaba fishery? According to reports, we’ll find out answers to those questions on November 27 when the Mexican government is supposed to announce the ban.
That’s why more than 30 organizations supporting whale and dolphin conservation have sent a letter to Mexican President Peña Nieto, urging an aggressive plan to save the vaquita. That plan must implement the recommendations made by the Fifth Meeting of the Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita, including a complete bar on the use of gillnets, no matter the target species, throughout the vaquita’s habitat and vigorous enforcement of the ban utilizing all available resource tools, both within and outside Mexico. The plan must also include a personal request from Mexico for assistance from the United States and China to curb the demand for totoaba swim bladders. Only with these actions will the vaquita have a chance to survive.