As vaquitas go extinct, fishermen complain about poaching

As Mexico seeks to protect the vaquita, a critically endangered species of porpoise, idled anglers complain of illegal fishing and corruption

By Lourdes Medrano

Javier Valverde grew up next to the sea, mesmerized by the thick schools of totoaba that swam near the shore. These silver fish can grow to more than six feet and weigh more than 200 pounds. Some days, the young Valverde would spot them jumping high out of the water. “They weren’t shy,” he recalled.


In the 1930s, Valverde’s father was among the early residents of San Felipe, a town in the Mexican state of Baja California, and situated on the edge of cactus-studded desert and sparkling ocean — the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez. The hunt for the large drum fish had lured hardy fishermen to cross the Gulf to its northern reaches, where they encountered a rich bounty of totoaba, sharks, and sea turtles that would transform the region into a fishing mecca. By the time he was a teenager in the 1960s, Valverde was guiding tourists enticed to his village by a new hook-and-line totoaba sportfishing industry. Some fish were so big that, when held upright, they would have towered over the boy’s thin frame.

But by then, large mesh nets had proliferated across the Gulf. Commercial vessels, including shrimp trawlers whose nets indiscriminately scraped species from the sea floor, had capitalized on the largely unregulated sea bonanza. “We were no longer the only ones fishing,” Valverde said. “People were coming from all over to fish with bigger nets, bigger boats, and the fleet became very large, immensely large. And not everyone respected the sea.”

Today, the Gulf of California remains a productive if diminished fishery, contributing 54 percent of Mexico's 2.2 million tons of commercial seafood in 2017, according to Mexico's Secretariat of Agriculture and Rural Development. But those numbers belie a bitter struggle now underway here — one that has lawless poachers, economically strapped fishermen, international conservation groups, and feckless regulators squaring off over the value and purpose of this blue expanse. The battle is most vividly manifest in the fate of the vaquita marina, a captivating but rarely spotted species of porpoise, endemic to the northern reaches of the Gulf. In March, scientists declared that only about 20 vaquita remain, and the crisis has gained extensive media coverage.

But as the international campaign to save the vaquita has become increasingly pitched, so too has the plight of traditional fishing communities like San Felipe, which is situated in close proximity to the vaquita’s sole habitat. Locals say fishing bans meant to protect the vaquita have done little to quell tensions. Poachers still operate with abandon, they say — many of them in pursuit of the dwindling totoaba and its coveted swim bladder, which is sold in China for its supposed medicinal powers. Meanwhile, the system of compensation set up to support idled anglers in the region has itself grown scarce, and under the leadership of Mexico's President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, many fishermen say they have not received any payments since mid-January, leading to protests.

The crisscrossing battle lines now have fishermen like Valverde struggling to make ends meet in a region that owes its very existence to a generous sea — their fates now intertwined with those of the vaquita, the totoaba, and a wide cast of national and international stakeholders. As it stands, restricted access to vaquita habitat keeps local pangas — small fishing boats — sitting motionless in residents' yards, instead of dockside and on the boardwalk where they had long dotted the sand.

"The government has closed the sea to us,” said Valverde, a mustachioed, slender man in his 70s. “Fishing is our livelihood; what do they expect us to do?”

Mexico first began taking steps to protect the vaquita decades ago. In 1996, the government established the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) to develop an action plan that would take both scientific evidence and the economic impacts of conservation into consideration. In 2005, it established a vaquita refuge where all use of gillnets — vertically hung nets designed to trap fish by the gills — was prohibited. This was followed by the rollout of a voluntary program to help fishermen switch to using safer gear, or compensate them for not fishing in the refuge — or even leaving the industry all together.


These efforts have had little effect — in part due to lax enforcement and a dearth of economic opportunities — so, in 2015, Mexico banned gillnet fishing within the animals’ range for two years and entered into an agreement with local residents. Fishermen from San Felipe and a neighboring town agreed to remove about 800 pangas from the water. This would allow the federal government to clear the sea of nets and develop alternative fishing gear. In return, the government was to pay about $53 million to some 2,500 people employed in the fishing sector.

By 2017, Mexico had made the ban on gillnets permanent, with the exception of those used to catch corvina, a whitefish similar to sea bass. But today, pressure from conservationists persists. “Over the past 20 years we’ve seen Mexico continue to propose new programs to save the vaquita, and over and over we’ve seen exactly the same thing: that those have failed due to lack of enforcement,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. Her conservation group estimates that in 2017, more than 1,400 tons of fish and shrimp caught with the banned gillnets, and worth about $16 million, were exported to the United States.

Uhlemann’s group, along with the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Animal Welfare Institute, sued the Trump administration last March for non-compliance with the Marine Mammal Protection Act’s “foreign-bycatch provisions” to protect the remaining vaquitas. This culminated in a U.S. import ban on shrimp and other seafood caught with gillnets in the region. Some fishermen now worry that this ban could be expanded nationwide.

All of these measures have taken a toll on the fishing sector. A lack of feasible alternative fishing gear and an explosion in the trafficking of totoaba swim bladders have drained the community’s lifeblood. The embargo, which applies to all products caught with gillnets within vaquita range, is one more obstacle, said Ramón Franco Díaz, who leads a federation of fishing cooperatives in San Felipe. “These are dark days for those of us who fish legally,” he said. “By law we cannot work, but those who fish illegally continue to do it, embargo or not.”

In fact, despite military and non-profit patrols that include drones and speedboats, poaching is booming. Criminal elements use the illegal gillnets to capture totoaba for its profitable swim bladder. Poachers furtively dry the gas-filled organ that helps the fish stay afloat in water and then ship it to China, where people pay up to tens of thousands of dollars for its purported aphrodisiac and healing properties.

Even when Valverde’s father first plied the gulf waters angling for totoaba, the fish bladder had been harvested for export, as well as to satisfy the region’s sizable Chinese population, who had immigrated to work in the agricultural fields. As a youngster, Valverde sometimes saw swim bladders laid out on the beach, drying in the sun. A handful of well-known locals used to sell the organ, he said, but nobody got rich off the trade.

He also never witnessed the totoaba carnage that now pervades the Upper Gulf. The fish carcasses rot on shore and float listless at sea, their guts violently ripped open. “Poor things,” Valverde said, sitting on his front porch with a somber expression. “What they’re doing with the totoaba now is an ecological crime.”

Franco Díaz figures that these days, totoaba poachers annihilating the species use upward of 500 illegal pangas in vaquita habitat. He said that’s about four times more than when the fishermen were still working. Further, a report by the Center for Advanced Defense Studies documented a link between the illegal totoaba trade and drug traffickers. The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit concluded that the illegal trade has become so rampant that Mexico will only be able to rein it in with help from other countries.

None of this is news to San Felipe residents, who say that signs of drug traffickers began to emerge in 2012. Although fishing restrictions kept tightening for the sake of vaquita, locals couldn’t help but notice the outsiders who streamed into town with new fishing boats and new trucks. Two years later, a member of the Sinaloa cartel was murdered north of San Felipe, confirming the cartel’s ties to the totoaba black market.“It’s a very critical situation. We are worse off than when we stopped fishing,” Franco Díaz said. “Criminal organizations have taken over the Sea of Cortez.”

For all the attention bestowed on the vaquita in recent years, it remains an evasive, mysterious animal. Modern science first recognized the cetacean in the late 1950s through recovered skulls. A live vaquita wasn’t documented until the 1980s. Most of what scientists knew then came from dead specimens that washed up on shore or perished entangled in gillnets. Scientists say the blunt-nosed vaquita, or “little cow” in Spanish, may be the next marine mammal to go extinct. With dark patches around the eyes and dark outlines around the mouth that mimic an ever-present smile, the vaquita has become a captivating symbol for the human-triggered plight of vanishing species around the world.

In 1997, a vessel with a team of Mexican and American scientists conducted the first comprehensive survey of the vaquita’s abundance and range. Jay Barlow, a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who was aboard the vessel, said the mammal was found only in the northern Gulf. “We estimated that there were 500 to 600 animals left at that time,” he said.


By 2015, that number was down to about 60. Now, scientists say there are only about 20 — possibly even less. “I’ve heard people say that we should just let the vaquita die with dignity,” said Barlow. “Well, I don’t believe that there’s any dignity in extinction. It’s a loss for everyone on this planet when we lose another species.”

In late 2017, an international team of scientists entered into uncharted territory: an attempt to capture for breeding the world’s most endangered marine mammal. As part of a $5 million mobilization, they built a care center and sea pens to shelter vaquita. But the team decided to suspend the operation after capturing two vaquita, a juvenile that was released after showing signs of stress and an adult that declined after being placed in a floating pen and ultimately died upon release. “When you dedicate yourself to conservation, when you dedicate yourself to marine animal care, you know that there is a great risk,” said Mexican mammal expert Ricardo Rebolledo. Though some had feared that vaquita might perish if plucked from the wild, he believed it was a chance worth taking.


Morning had just broken in San Felipe, and 11 pangas were leaving the dock carrying about 20 fishermen. They were on an eight-hour mission to mark the location of abandoned fishing nets for eventual destruction. Abandoned or lost nets, some large enough to trap whales, hang underwater like porous panels that snare vaquita, totoaba, turtles, sea lions and a host of other marine species. On this nascent fall day, the task of these men was to mark the nets’ location with buoys.

Vaquita habitat range worldwide

Armando Castro called out orders into a two-way radio, leading the way in the salty breeze toward the Narval, a 135-foot vessel in the distance. A short time later, Castro transferred his passengers: me, my photographer, and a federal environmental inspector. After we boarded the Narval, Castro dispersed with his fleet of pangas deep into vaquita territory in search of redes fantasmas — ghost nets — left behind, mostly by poachers, in the still of darkness.

It’s an unusual, somewhat discomforting job for men who have spent their lives tossing nets into the sea, hoping for a good catch. They worked in tandem with the Narval and a second vessel operated by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. When the fishermen marked a location, they radioed the nearest of the two large boats to retrieve the nets. As of last year, more than 1,200 nets had been pulled from the water.

As he navigates the deep blue waters of the Upper Gulf, Narval captain Francisco Javier Melchor says the prevalence of nets left behind astounds him. “The amount of ghost nets in the water is incredible. It’s rare to not find any when we go out,” he said from behind the steering wheel on the bridge of the ship. The large windows before him framed ocean and sky in a wealth of blue hues as he searched for pangas through his binoculars.

Around 10:30 am, the first radio call came in to the Narval, prompting a flurry of activity. Men donned yellow fisherman overalls. In a tug-of-war with the sea, they used a grappling hook to retrieve a water-heavy, worn-out gillnet. This time at least, there were no live or dead animals for the federal inspector to document.

This story was produced in part with support from the Fund for Environmental Journalism of the Society of Environmental Journalists. This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article


Lourdes Medrano is a freelance journalist based in Tucson, Arizona. Her work, centered on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, has been featured in various print and online publications, including The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post, Wired, The Atlantic, and more.


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