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Violence Ramping Up Around Vaquita Dilemma

A gang of dozens of fishermen overturned inspectors’ trucks, burned or destroyed 15 vehicles and patrol boats, and beat three inspectors from the office for environmental protection in a town on Mexico’s Gulf of California.The fishermen were angered by Mexico’s attempt to save the vaquita porpoise by banning some types of net fishing in the Gulf -also known as the Sea of Cortez – where only about 30 of the elusive animals are believed to survive.

The office said Thursday the inspectors managed to escape after the attack on Wednesday, but that criminal charges were being filed. The attacks were directed against personnel and property of the office for environmental protection, the country’s fisheries council, and the commission for protected natural areas.

Fishermen lured by Chinese demand for the swim bladder of a fish known as the totoaba, which inhabits the same waters as the vaquita, have decimated the porpoise population.

Vaquitas are caught in the same kind of nets that illegal totoaba fishermen use. Prices for a kilogram of totoaba swim bladders can reach thousands of dollars.

The fishermen in the town of Golfo de Santa Clara, in Sonora state, were apparently angered over a delay approving permits for corvina, another kind of fish whose legal season would normally begin around now.

But experts are worried that corvina boats could also illegally carry totoaba nets.

Mexico has announced that special permits would be needed for corvina fishermen, and inspectors said the fishermen had applied for those permits late.

Totoaba fishermen have mainly cut and run when confronted by Mexican Navy patrols in the past, but activists and environmentalists have warned that criminal gangs appear to be involved in the lucrative illegal trade and that threats have been mounting.

Experts and the Mexican government previously announced a plan to catch the few remaining vaquitas and enclose them in pens for protection and possible breeding.

Mexican authorities already banned gillnet fishing in the vaquitas’ habitat, but that has proved difficult to enforce.

A study done in November by an international committee of experts that used acoustic monitoring to survey the population of the porpoise. The results showed vaquita numbers had declined 90 percent over the last five years, and the study estimated that because numbers have dropped so fast there are probably less than 30 now.

The international committee found that illegal fishing continues, saying 31 illegal nets were pulled from the Gulf of California in October and November.

Experts acknowledge the catch-and-enclose plan is risky, because the few remaining females could die during capture, dooming the species.

Still, some experts say the capture program may be the vaquitas’ only hope. But others worry that fishermen may engage in a free-for-all once the endangered vaquita is removed and thus wipe out other species in the gulf.


Just Released: Short Film on the Vaquita

This is a very well done little film on the plight of the Vaquita. There are some good shots of the San Felipe area. Filmed by a gentleman from Idaho.

Fishing Ban to Protect the Vaquita Begins March 1

vaquita1Beginning March 1, 2015, gill net and trawler fishing will be banned from a potion of the north end of the Sea of Cortez.  This ban has come about in an effort, by the Mexican Government,  to help save the vaquita from extinction.  This restriction is scheduled to last two years and will cover an area ten times greater than the currently established protected area of  two thousand square kilometers.  Although several news articles claim that fishing south of San Felipe will not be part of the ban, it is a little unclear just where the southerly boundary of the protected area begins and ends.

In a statement made in Mexico City today by Luis Fueyo MacDonald representing the Commission of Protected Environmental Areas, the aim of this measure is to attempt to stabilize a population which has lost 145  vaquitas over the last two years.  The vaquita is the smallest and rarest of the porpoises. Until 1959, the vaquita was thought to be a myth. Currently only 97 are still living.  Vaquitas reproduce every two years and there are only twenty-four mature females remaining.  Experts predict it will take twenty to thirty more years of these kinds of protection efforts to save the vaquita from total extinction. That would mean creating a population of around 5,000 vaquitas.  Officials from the Mexican Federal Environmental Protection Agency (PROFEPA) estimate that if nothing is done now to protect them, the vaquita could become extinct as early as 2018.

Vaquita Distribution

Range of the Vaquita in the Sea of Cortez. (The corridor of protection is much smaller than what is displayed here.)

Beginning in March, the restricted areas will be patrolled by three drones operated by the Mexican Navy.  These three drones will cost the Mexican government approximately thirty million pesos (a little over 2 million dollars using current conversion rate).  They are capable of covering one hundred kilometers at fifteen thousand feet, and, can be kept in the air for approximately twelve hours at a time.  These drones are also expected to help in efforts to combat totuaba trafficking and protect other endangered species in the area. Certain parts of the totuaba command incredible prices ($5,000 and up) in Asian markets.

The Mexican Government is well aware of the impact this move will have on the livelihood of many, if not most, San Felipeans.  Working in coordination with the Mayor of Mexicali’s office, the Government has put together a plan to compensate San Felipe fishermen and associated industries during this two year moratorium.  Licensed fishermen who can demonstrate a history of commercial fishing in this area will receive an annual compensation of up to $120,000 pesos (currently equivalent of $8,275 dollars) annually during the ban.  It was unclear as to whether this annual compensation was to be awarded to individual fishermen, or, to the fishing vessel.  Each fishing vessel is generally manned by two fishermen.

Map of Vaquita Refuge Area in Sea of Cortez

This map shows current refuge area (the tiny part) and the refuge area as of March1

Approximately four-hundred fishing vessels and eight-hundred fishermen operate out of the Port of San Felipe.  Estimates are that an additional two-hundred fishermen operate in the area without official permits.

At this writing, what impact this will have on the availability of shrimp, clams, and other local fish (and, the price thereof) is unclear.


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