Mexico implemented a two-year ban on gillnets in April 2015 throughout the Upper Gulf of California to reduce vaquita deaths. Despite this, three of the tiny porpoises were found dead in March 2016, another three in March 2017, all during the spawning season for Gulf corvina and the endangered totoaba. The latter is targeted by poachers for its swim bladder, which is sold for astronomical prices on the black market. (See AWI Quarterly, summer 2015.) The most recent scientific reports estimate that fewer than 30 vaquita remain.
Mexico amended its penal code in April 2017 to impose stricter punishments and higher fines for trafficking in endangered aquatic species. But totoaba poachers have used the corvina fishery as cover, taking advantage of a loophole in the 2015 ban that allowed continued gillnet fishing for corvina. Vaquita drown when caught in totoaba fishing gear, and the dead porpoises found in the last two years showed signs of scarring consistent with entanglement.
Shrimp boats and other vessels continue to fish illegally in the Vaquita Refuge Area. The Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been patrolling the waters of the Upper Gulf, looking for poachers and hauling up active and derelict fishing gear. The organization has found hundreds of illegal nets in the past three years.
In March 2017, with the expiration of the ban looming, AWI, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), and the Natural Resources Defense Council, in cooperation with over 50 other organizations, launched the Boycott Mexican Shrimp campaign. The campaign calls on people to pledge not to purchase shrimp from Mexico until a full—and fully enforced—gillnet ban is in place. A campaign website includes information on how to contact Mexican officials.
Mexico’s Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA) subsequently extended the ban until May 31, 2017, to allow time for discussions on the draft regulation. Fishery representatives said the extension will allow Mexico’s National Fisheries Institute to make new, vaquita-safe fishing gear available. The failure to provide viable alternatives for the fishing communities of the Upper Gulf has been a common concern for fishers and conservationists. SAGARPA also posted a draft regulation on gillnets in the Upper Gulf. At press time, the draft still allowed corvina gillnet fishing, and failed to adequately define which gear and fisheries would be covered. AWI joined with a number of Mexican and US NGOs to comment on the proposal.
Meanwhile, Mexico’s Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources is leading a plan to capture a number of vaquita this fall and place them in sea pens. Although this plan is born of a desperate desire to save the animal, many, including AWI, believe that it is extremely risky, and must not replace the efforts to clear vaquita habitat of gillnets and illegal fishing.
A team of experts from the United Nation’s World Heritage Committee (WHC) visited Mexico in late April to determine whether the Upper Gulf of California warrants an “in danger” listing, following a petition calling for such a listing by AWI and CBD. The team’s report will be discussed at the next meeting of the WHC in July. If the area is listed, UN resources would become available to assist Mexico. With fewer than 30 vaquita left, only a truly global effort is likely to be able to keep this unique porpoise from going extinct.