As scientists planned an expedition to Mexico this fall to count one of the world’s most endangered animals, a shy porpoise called a vaquita, they feared the possibility that none were left to be found. The last survey, in 2019, estimated that there were only a dozen left.
At the same time, fishermen in the area were preparing to leave with the illegal nets that scientists say are driving porpoises to extinction: mesh walls that hang vertically below the surface, up to 6 meters deep and extend the length of several soccer balls. the fields.
Called gillnets, they trap shrimp and fish. They also entangle vaquitas, drowning mammals. Researchers say nets are the only known cause of the species’ catastrophic decline, but getting rid of them has proven to be a challenge.
In the midst of a global biodiversity crisis, with around 1 million species threatened with extinction, the story of the vaquita shows how even obvious solutions – in this case, ending illegal fishing – require a will. policy, enforcement and deep engagement with local communities to meet the needs of humans and animals.
“The government has still not given us a solution or an effective way to support our families without going illegally fishing,” said Ramón Franco Díaz, president of a federation of fishing cooperatives in San Felipe, a town adjacent to the habitat. vaquitas. . “Children need food and clothing.
The first results of this year’s vaquita survey, completed in early November, show that the animals still exist, but on the edge of the knife. Marine mammal experts say recovery is possible, but only if their habitat is free of gillnets.
Instead, illegal fishing in the region is rampant and happening in plain sight. Even when a team of scientists from Mexico and the United States arrived in San Felipe for this year’s count, it seemed to continue unabated.
The vaquita population has grown from around 600 individuals in 1997 to around 10 in 2019. But there are examples of endangered species dating back to just as tiny numbers, and the 2019 survey documented three healthy calves. health among the remaining porpoises. Since then, at least one vaquita has died in a gillnet, according to defenders.
“They will become extinct because of human activities, although it could be avoided,” said Jorge Urbán Ramírez, a biologist who heads the marine mammal research program at the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur. “It’s not a priority.
“Trying to avoid confrontation”
To protect vaquitas, a Mexican government order bans gillnets in much of the Upper Gulf of California, the only place where mammals live. Another bans all fishing in a much smaller section of the Gulf, officially called the zero tolerance zone, where they have been spotted in recent years.
But in San Felipe, it’s like the rules don’t exist.
This fall, fishing boats openly carrying gillnets were waved in the Gulf by members of the Mexican Navy. On November 3, scientists counted 117 fishing boats in the no-go zone in a single day, according to a report obtained by The New York Times.
Referring to the zero tolerance zone, which covers approximately 7 miles by 15 miles, the text of the decree “prohibits the navigation of any type of vessel within this zone, with the exception of surveillance vessels, investigation or recovery of nets ”. It also specifies that “all fishing is prohibited”.
Jonathan White, an environmentalist who raised funds to help fund the survey project, was on board one of the ships for part of the research period. On two different days in October, he said, he counted more than 65 fishing boats, the number designated to unleash the highest level of repression, in the zero tolerance zone. Instead, he didn’t see any apps at all. “It’s so blatant,” White said.
Likewise, on that day in early November, when scientists counted more than 100 boats in the zero tolerance zone, there was no sign of enforcement, according to the scientists’ report.
Asked about the apparent lack of action, Navy Public Affairs Chief Rear Admiral José H. Orozco Tocaven said officers were tailoring the rule to social needs on the ground, effectively allowing the presence of up to ‘to 65 boats in the zero tolerance zone. They had never seen more than that, he said. But he recognized the general lack of enforcement. “We are trying to avoid confrontation,” the admiral said, citing previous riots and unrest.
Over the past decade, the demand for a big fish called totoaba has made the situation particularly volatile. All totoaba fishing, which is also endangered, is illegal. But his swim bladder sells for high prices in China for perceived health benefits, and the trade has attracted organized crime. While many local fishermen avoid the totoaba, the temptation to make a lot of money is strong.
On Sunday, authorities announced the arrest of six people in connection with totoaba trafficking.
All gillnets are dangerous for the vaquita, scientists say, but those used for totoaba are particularly deadly because the two species are roughly the same size.
With permission from Mexican authorities, two rights groups, the Whale Museum and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, patrolled the Gulf to remove gillnets left unattended. This infuriated the fishermen, who often take out loans to buy the equipment. In recent years, the clashes have become increasingly violent, with fishermen invading the larger vessels at sea and sometimes shooting them.
A fisherman died after his small boat collided with a Sea Shepherd vessel during one of these episodes in December. A group led by totoaba fishermen revolted, according to Orozco and his lawyers, torching a high-speed navy interceptor boat, another boat and vehicles. Conservation groups are no longer allowed to remove nets, but only to report them.
Rodrigo López Olivo, who uses gillnets to catch shrimp and other legal species, remembers seeing vaquitas a handful of times in his 20 years in the Gulf. He found the porpoises magnificent, he said. But he doesn’t see a future for them.
“How are you going to let a city die to take care of six animals?” Lopez asked.
“You have to give them a chance to fight”
Autopsies have shown that vaquitas found dead in the Gulf tend to be fatty and healthy, with the exception of the foam in their lungs which reveals the cause of their death: drowning.
In 2017, scientists attempted to bring some into captivity, but abandoned the effort when the porpoises became so stressed from contact with humans that one died.
Barbara Taylor, a biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries who has worked on vaquita conservation for decades, said the few remaining porpoises may have a predilection for avoiding nets. “Those who are there are survivors,” she said. “But you have to give them a chance to fight.”
Recent studies show that the long isolated species is naturally resistant to low genetic diversity, meaning that health issues related to inbreeding, often a danger in diminished populations, are of less concern.
The United States has already banned upper Gulf seafood due to the vaquita situation, and authorities are considering further measures. “This is something we take very seriously,” said Kelly Milton, US assistant trade representative for the environment and natural resources. “Losing the vaquita would be devastating.”
San Felipe shrimp are currently being shipped to other Mexican states, and some locals say the catches are likely to mix and the banned shrimp will end up in the United States anyway.
Over the past decade, fishermen have received an allowance to stay out of the water. But after the current president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, took office in 2018, that program ended and authorities tolerated gillnets, according to local fishermen.
“The disappearance of the vaquita represents a blatant and comprehensive failure of the State of Mexico and its institutions,” said Randall Reeves, chairman of an international scientific group established by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature to assess the world situation of whales, dolphins and porpoises. .
When asked to comment on this article, Mexican environmental officials said in a statement that “the Mexican government emphatically reiterates its desire to care for and preserve the natural biodiversity of our country, and particularly to take care and to seek the conservation of the vaquita “. At the same time, they said, it was necessary to take into consideration “the well-being of fishing communities”.
However, a small team trying to fish with alternative nets encountered roadblocks. The method catches less, but some fishermen think it might make economic sense if they could sell sustainable shrimp at a higher price. No such market has been developed in the region, and this season they were unable to secure a permit for the special craft.
Some community members refuse to give up a species they consider part of their national heritage. Ismael Angulo, who grew up in a fishing family, remembers a day in 2004 when his father, Leonardo, who died in 2016, brought home a vaquita he said he found floating dead in the water .
“It was almost like finding a mermaid,” Angulo said. His uncles and cousins came to see the creature and they posed for pictures. Years later, when he saw a debate on social media about whether or not vaquitas existed – some locals believe this to be a myth – he posted the photo. Some fishermen got mad at him for supporting the scientists’ position, he said, but he did not delete the post.
“As a fisherman’s son, I want a solution for both the fishermen and the species,” Angulo said.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.