Breaking! Critically Endangered Vaquita Struggles To Survive Extinction As Rampant Fishing Continues In “Zero Tolerance” Refuge

Vaquita in front of fishing boat. Credit: CONANP | MuseoDeLaBallena | Sea Shepherd

Conservation patrol vessels recently carried out the second leg of a scientific expedition to study the critically endangered vaquita. Shockingly, they encountered dozens of fishing boats within the 150 square kilometer “zero tolerance” of the federally protected Vaquita Refuge in Mexico’s Biosphere Reserve in the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River. 

Within a few hours after departing from the San Felipe Harbor on October 17th, a live vaquita was photographed in the water a few feet away from a fishing boat in a restricted area.

The boats, setting and retrieving prohibited gillnets mainly for shrimp, chano and corvina fish, numbered more than 70 and were sighted in groups of up to 28 at a time by the crews and scientists on board the vessels M/V Farley Mowat and Narval.

“Unfortunately, these fishing boats are exactly where we saw the remaining vaquita during the last sighting voyage,” veteran Sea Shepherd Captain, Octavio Carranza, said in a statement. “This is also where we found a dead vaquita tangled in a gillnet a few months ago.”

Fishing inside the refuge has been banned, following the recommendation of     CIRVA (the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita), in an attempt to protect the critically endangered marine mammal. Subsidies given to the fishermen by the Mexican Government to compensate for this measure ceased to be disbursed 11 months ago.

“We want the United Nations to know that some of the fisherman in our community went fishing without respecting agreements or protected areas as a result of the lack of attention and dialogue the federal Government has given to this issue,” stated Ramon Franco, President of the Cooperativas Ribereñas Rubio Castro from San Felipe, Baja California.

The result is that hundreds of fishing boats have been returning to sea.

“We are between a rock and a hard place: between organized crime and the problems derived from illegal activities in the area, and pressure towards the commercial fishing sector by the government. Those most affected are our fishing organizations that stick to the rules. Those who most benefit are the illegal fishers,” said Carlos Tirado, Leader of the Federación Regional de Sociedades Cooperativas Pescadores de la Reserva de la Biosfera, S.C, de R.L de CV. “Immediate attention from the President needs to be given to this matter.”

These recent incursions into the refuge come despite Mexico pledging to heighten enforcement in the area, and highlights the real and present danger facing the vaquita, as well as the underlying socio-economic and enforcement issues that continue to plague the Upper Gulf.

The Mexican Navy’s Valle Class Oceanic Patrol Vessel Escobedo is presently in the Upper Gulf of California and is scheduled to participate in net retrieval operations this month. A Navy interceptor or ‘fast boat’ was called to the scene to inspect the boats. No arrests were made.

“It is heartbreaking that with less than 20 vaquitas left, this small critical area is still impacted by gillnets,” stated Sea Shepherd Campaigns Director, Captain Locky MacLean. “We welcome the recent announcement by Mexico’s SPCC (La Secretaría de Seguridad y Protección Ciudadana) to increase capacity in the region. Immediate action, collaboration and understanding between government and artisanal fishers is needed now more than ever to keep the critical zone clear of danger for the vaquita porpoise.”

The expedition to spot vaquitas is coordinated by CONANP with the collaboration of Museo de la Ballena y Ciencias del Mar and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Researchers also participated from the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur (UABCS) and the United States, and support continued from the Mexican Navy (SEMAR). The first leg of the expedition generated three sightings of vaquita pairs, on August 19th, 20th, and September 3rd, in the waters off San Felipe, Baja California. The second leg of the survey runs between October 14th and 28th. The elusive and critically endangered species is being driven ever closer toward extinction by becoming ensnared in gillnets, the primary cause of the vaquita’s decline.

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