Saving the Vaquita: Mexico Acts, but Is It Enough?

A tragedy is unfolding in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California. Fatal entanglements in shrimp and fish nets—many of them cast by poachers—are driving the world’s smallest cetacean to extinction. In August 2014, scientists estimated that fewer than 100 vaquita porpoises remain in the wild—all in the Upper Gulf—and warned that if vaquita bycatch and a growing illegal fishery for totoaba (a large fish endemic to the Gulf of California) are not shut down immediately, the tiny porpoise could be extinct by 2018. (See “Can the Vaquita be Saved?” in the Winter 2015 AWI Quarterly to read more on the interrelated fates of the vaquita and totoaba.)

While the Mexican government has taken various steps to protect the vaquita over the past two decades, including establishing a vaquita refuge area, it has never committed the resources needed for robust law enforcement in fishing communities and at borders and has lacked the political will to prosecute or impose meaningful sentences against totoaba poachers, sellers, or smugglers. Meanwhile, an illicit network of traders in totoaba swim bladders (known as “buches”) has grown to span several countries, including the United States, Canada, China, and Japan. With demand for totoaba buches growing in China for soup and traditional medicinal products (despite no evidence of any curative value), Asian buyers are reported to pay up to US$14,000 per kilogram. Buches are so valuable in Mexico, drug cartels are entering the totoaba business and police and wildlife enforcement officers are alleged to be complicit in local trafficking.

Finally, in April 2015, after months of speculation that an announcement was imminent, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto visited San Felipe, one of the gulf fishing communities that is central to the vaquita and totoaba crisis. There, he made a public commitment to save both species and announced a “Program on the Comprehensive Care of the Upper Gulf” that will involve multiple state governments and federal ministries, coordinated by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. The program’s main elements include the expansion of the existing vaquita refuge, a suspension of gillnet fishing and the use of longlines for two years, a compensation scheme for fishers and related workers, and surveillance and enforcement elements (including navy vessels) to combat illegal fishing for totoabas and trade in buches.

While the new program and President Peña Nieto’s interest are welcome, AWI remains concerned that the new regulations—particularly the temporary fishing ban—are inadequate and unlikely to be fully implemented and enforced. The ban must be made permanent but—with the buches trade already spanning the globe and still growing in value and scale—Mexico clearly cannot solve this crisis alone.

In an attempt to bring the relevant countries together and motivate Mexico to fully cooperate, AWI is working with a coalition of conservation and animal protection organizations in pursuit of a strategy that will provide both a carrot and a stick. One month after the Mexican president’s announcement, AWI and the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) for help.

The habitat of these imperiled species is contained within the Upper Gulf of California and Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, which was declared by Mexico in 1993 and included in UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere Programme’s (MAB) international network the following year. The same general area was also designated as the Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California World Heritage site by UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee (WHC) in 2005. Both prestigious designations impose a responsibility on the range state—which Mexico is not fulfilling. In two separate initiatives, AWI and the Center for Biological Diversity have petitioned the relevant UNESCO committees to urgently review the status of the sites, and the species integral to them, and insist on immediate remedial action by Mexico if their Biosphere Reserve/World Heritage standing is to be maintained.

In the case of the World Heritage site, we submitted a formal petition to the WHC seeking an immediate re-designation of the site as “In Danger” (see for more on the ramifications of this designation). The petition requests that the WHC urgently dispatch a monitoring mission to evaluate the site and adopt a program of corrective measures to protect both species. Although this approach of challenging the area’s World Heritage status is intended to motivate Mexico, it is not meant to be adversarial; in fact, if the WHC adopts the designation, it could allocate significant funds to help Mexico implement additional protective measures for both species, on the water and at the border. For example, it could fund and coordinate much-needed enforcement officer training, including on how to identify totoaba swim bladders by visual inspection and via genetic analysis.

Our approach with the Biosphere Reserve is to challenge a review undertaken by the MAB Council in 2014, which concluded—based on a submission by Mexico—that the site continues to meet the criteria for its designation. This finding was made just one month before the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita released its August 2014 report declaring that the vaquita was in imminent danger of extinction and calling for the complete and permanent cessation of all gillnet fishing in the Upper Gulf. The report prepared by Mexico for the council’s review, therefore, inadequately conveyed the magnitude of the threats facing both the vaquita and totoaba. Consequently, the Biosphere Reserve is not helping to ensure the conservation of the vaquita and totoaba and the council must review the new evidence and revisit its conclusion. We hope our petition will help to bring additional attention to the issue and provide an incentive to the government of Mexico to fully comply with the experts’ recommendations.

Both UNESCO committees met in June 2015 and we hope to report positive news of these and other initiatives in future editions of the AWI Quarterly. Also, in late June we learned that the United States and China have jointly affirmed their intention to increase cooperative efforts to address wildlife trafficking, including in totoabas—a welcome and timely announcement given China’s role in the fate of the vaquita, and the reality that the trade in buches is known to involve US ports and traders.

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