The vaquita—a wide-eyed porpoise whose mouth rests in a beckoning smile—has long been teetering on the edge of extinction, its small habitat besieged by illegal fishing.
Now a change to Mexican regulations appears to spell the species’ doom. The rules will allow fishing in a tiny area where conservationists have spotted the last remaining vaquitas on Earth, believed to number around 10. The decision means that there is not a single spot left in its habitat in the upper reaches of the Gulf of California that offers effective protection for the small marine mammal, the world’s most endangered.
“We’re all devastated,” said Barbara Taylor, a marine conservation biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who has worked to protect the vaquita for more than two decades.
“We’ve been watching this government do less than nothing since they took office,” she told VICE World News. “But this is a very clear indication that they are actively working to see the species go extinct.”
The small porpoise’s population has collapsed because vaquitas become entangled and die in gillnets set for other catch. The gillnets, long curtains that sway in the currents of the Upper Gulf, are illegal in the vaquita’s habitat but the prohibition has not been properly enforced. The fishermen that live in the area’s small towns have never been offered a viable alternative to the gillnets and have widely ignored the ban.
Shrimp provide the main legal catch for the local communities, but over the past decade the nets set for a large endangered fish called the totoaba has sped up the vaquita’s decline. The totoaba’s swim bladder is a delicacy in China, where it fetches thousands of dollars, creating an illegal business so lucrative that organized crime has allegedly become involved, paying fishermen thousands of dollars for a single fish.
Successive governments have crafted different strategies to protect the vaquita, which means “little cow” in Spanish, most recently paying the fishermen not to fish and designing ways to charge a premium in the California market for shrimp caught in vaquita-safe nets. After President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office at the end of 2018, his government halted the payments as it designed a new strategy.
Last September, as part of that strategy, the government announced what it called a zero tolerance zone in a small portion of the northern part of the Gulf of California. It banned all fishing in the area, just 12 km by 24 km, to protect the vaquita.
But the new rule, which was announced Wednesday, retreated from that promise. Instead the government announced complex new regulations with a sliding scale of punishments only if more than 60 boats are in the area on multiple occasions, and more than 500 meters of nets are recovered in one day.
Alex Olivera, Mexico's representative at the Center for Biological Diversity, said the rules were a “regression.”
“Without a doubt, as long as there are nets and fishing in the zero tolerance zone, it could lead to the vaquita's extinction,” he said.
He was at loss to explain the reason for the back tracking. “I really do not know why this type of policy, this type of action is carried out,” Olivera said. “But what is noticeable is a lack of political will to effectively protect the vaquita porpoise.”
While the government has promised extensive enforcement by the Navy and other law enforcement agencies in the region, its past efforts offer no reassurance.
Last November, for example, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, which has been collaborating with the Mexican Navy since 2015 to remove illegal fishing gear, counted 1185 fishing boats through the month of November in the zero tolerance area. Most of them had set gillnets for shrimp.
The government has not renewed its agreement with Sea Shepherd to continue removing nets.
“It shouldn't be like that, it must be black and white,” said Olivera of the new rules, emphasizing the need for a completely protected area for the endangered mammal to thrive and rebuild its population. “Now, well, it's really a tolerance zone for illegal fishermen.”
During the last expedition to attempt to survey the vaquita population in November 2019, scientists saw 10 individual vaquitas including three healthy calves in the zero tolerance area, said Taylor.
“That means we’re dealing with survivors,” she said. “If you could guard that tiny area, you could give them a fighting chance.”
“But the government has not permitted pulling up nets and has not protected and guarded this last area, as if they are actively promoting the extinction of the vaquita,” Olivera said.
And its actions will not go unnoticed, she said. Under international conservation treaties, as well as its free trade treaty with the United States and Canada, Mexico has made commitments to protect endangered species.
“There are sanctions that could be brought to bear for Mexico’s lack of concern for the vaquita.”