LA PAZ, Mexico— Mexico announced this week that it will ease enforcement in the vaquita’s core Upper Gulf of California habitat, at a time when only 10 of these unique, small porpoises remain on Earth. The move will hasten the porpoise’s extinction as vaquita are caught in the illegal gillnets of fishermen.
Mexico’s new plan essentially converts a “zero tolerance area” (ZTA) where fishing is banned to a complicated enforcement zone with varying levels of deterrence, surveillance, and monitoring depending on the amount of illegal fishing detected by authorities.
Despite scientists’ urgent calls to eliminate fishing in the Upper Gulf of California, the Mexican government’s new plan commits only 60% of the country’s available enforcement resources if no more than 20 boats are spotted in the ZTA (an area roughly twice the size of the District of Columbia). If 20 to 50 illegal boats are found in the ZTA, the government will only commit 80% of its available enforcement capacity.
“The Mexican government’s plan is silly,” said Alejandro Olivera, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Officials will be wasting precious time counting vessels within an area where zero fishing is supposed to be tolerated. They won’t even bother fully enforcing the fishing ban until 50 illegal boats are detected in this small area.”
Despite decades of repeated promises to protect the vaquita, the Mexican government has failed to stop the use of deadly gillnets that are entangling and drowning these porpoises. In its June report, the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission expressed its disappointment and frustration that “the vaquita population edges closer to extinction caused by gillnet entanglement and ineffective fisheries management and enforcement measures in the Upper Gulf of California.”
“Mexico’s fisheries officials are mismanaging the vaquita to death, driving the species to extinction,” said Kate O’Connell, marine wildlife consultant for the Animal Welfare Institute. “The Mexican National Fisheries and Aquaculture Commission and the National Fisheries Institute have ignored expert scientific advice for decades and have allowed illegal fishing to continue unabated.”
Mexico’s new enforcement scheme also includes a series of weak “triggers” based on how frequently illegal fishing boats are detected in the ZTA. For example, officials will ban fishing in an area wider than the ZTA for seven days only if 60 illegal boats have been detected in the three times in one month. This incredible number of boats will only hasten the vaquita’s decline.
And it’s unlikely that Mexico will enforce even these minimal fishing regulations, given that authorities have failed for decades to control illegal fishing in the ZTA and the larger vaquita refuge. “It’s sheer fantasy that Mexico will suddenly be able to enforce a more complicated ban on fishing under this new scheme,” said Olivera.
“Mexico has implicitly telegraphed its intent to allow the vaquita to go extinct by continually embracing inadequate half-measures which have never been effectively implemented or enforced,” said Zak Smith, a senior attorney at NRDC. “This latest announcement transitions Mexico’s stance to an explicit affirmation that the only way it sees out of its vaquita problem is the quick extinction of the species.”
For the past 25 years, Mexico has failed to fulfill its promises to protect the vaquita and its habitat from gillnets set to catch totoaba, a critically endangered fish whose swim bladders are in high demand in Asia, and other species.
But international pressure is increasing. Last year the United States banned the import of fishery products from the vaquita’s habitat. UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee inscribed the World Heritage site where the vaquita live as “in danger” in 2019 due to the precipitous decline in vaquita numbers. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora may also consider trade sanctions against Mexico at its upcoming meetings due to Mexico’s ongoing failure to stop the illegal capture and trade in totoaba.