Hope Dims as Mexico, WHC Fail to Help Vaquita

The 44th session of the World Heritage Committee (WHC) was held virtually July 16-31. One issue before the committee was Mexico’s efforts—or lack thereof—to stave off extinction of the vaquita, a porpoise species with only 10 individuals remaining, all within Mexico’s Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California World Heritage site. Vaquita are considered among the site’s key “Outstanding Universal Values”—elements that render a location suitable for designation as a World Heritage site.

Both the World Heritage Centre (the body that oversees the World Heritage Convention—a global agreement to protect World Heritage sites) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (the WHC’s advisory body on natural heritage, abbreviated as “IUCN”) acknowledge that “illegal fishing has continued in the Upper Gulf of California resulting in a threat of imminent extinction of the vaquita population” and that Mexico “has not fully implemented the regulations [adopted in September 2020] and has failed to enforce them.”

At the WHC session, however, the 21 country members declined to demand that Mexico expedite corrective measures to save the vaquita. Instead, members accepted, without debate, a woefully inadequate decision that allows Mexico to postpone submitting the measures until February 1, 2022. Considering that the Centre, the IUCN, and Mexico had 24 months to complete these corrective measures since the site was designated as “in danger,” the WHC’s failure to act is unconscionable. 

Only days before the WHC meeting, Mexico published new fishing regulations that significantly weaken standards in the zero tolerance area (ZTA)—a region of the vaquita refuge where fishing was supposed to be prohibited. The new rules establish a complicated sliding scale whereby, for example, Mexico will only commit 100 percent of its enforcement resources if more than 50–65 illegal fishing vessels or more than 200–500 meters of gillnets are found in the ZTA in a single day. In its response to the WHC’s decision, Mexico claimed that its new regulation would improve enforcement in the Upper Gulf when, in fact, it represents a significant step backwards for the species and its recovery. 

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