The Race to Save the Vaquita Porpoise From Extinction

San Felipe, Baja California, Mexico.

The long-running global struggle to prevent extinction of the world’s most endangered marine mammal claimed its first human life here on Jan. 2, in the conflict between illegal fishing and conservation of the vaquita porpoise.

Fisherman Mario Garcia Toledo, 56, died after suffering massive injuries when his skiff collided with a vessel of the international marine-life watchdog Sea Shepherd while the latter was combing clandestine nets from the waters of the no-catch zone in the Vaquita Refuge of the Upper Golf of California.

The tragedy, under investigation by the Mexican Navy, threw into sharp relief the demand for measures to quell the piracy and lawlessness that have reduced the vaquita (Phocoena sinus) population from 567 in 1997 to no more than 20 today.

The chart for that is no simple formula, requiring not only the fresh tack being taken by the administration of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, but also a change in strategy by non-governmental organizations.

To obtain buy-in from the region’s desperate fishing communities, enabling them to become a bulwark against organized crime, government must get on board the effort to effectively enforce internationally mandated marine conservation measures.

At the same time, organized civil society must nurture cooperation between authorities and community members for mutually acceptable catch techniques or alternative income opportunities in the realm of fair trade.

While shrimping traditionally has been the economic strong suit in the Upper Gulf of California, the fishery has been plagued by the black market for totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), a finfish prized for its swim-bladder soup by elite consumers in China. The totoaba’s maw is literally worth its weight in gold, with one gram selling for more than $40 at retail.

It is being caught in the same gillnets conventionally used for shrimp, which also snare and suffocate the vaquita. Both totoaba and vaquita are endemic forms of marine life that measure a little less than two meters long. They exist nowhere except in the Upper Gulf, or Alto Golfo. The need to protect them led to  a ban on gillnets several seasons ago.

After 25 years of unsuccessful attempts to halt the trade in the now critically endangered totoaba and the bycatch of the even more critically endangered vaquita porpoise, the main outcomes of the campaign to save the species are: the loss of local fishing income, the rise of corruption, and foreign sanctions crushing Mexico’s all-important seafood industry.

The vaquita’s population implosion provoked the extension this past March 5, of a 2018 U.S. trade embargo on the importation of Mexican shrimp, fish, and other seafood. A committee from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) also is considering commercial sanctions against Mexico for failing to halt the illegal exportation of any fish captured in gillnets.

Under economic pressure, the relatively new — and decidedly different — Lopez Obrador administration employed an unprecedented tactic. It turned to intelligence gathering, investigation and high-level analysis of results.

Not surprisingly, the clues to the money trail came from a non-governmental organization, this one being Earth League International, whose Wildlife Crime Division “worked tirelessly to gather the intelligence needed by authorities.”

The grassroots sleuthing operation prepared and submitted a “Confidential Intelligence Brief” to law enforcement authorities in Mexico, China and the United States, containing the non-redacted data gathered regarding the key players, their networks and enablers, and the complete modus operandi of the traffickers and traders. The brief included concrete evidence of illegal activity uncovered during the investigation, and hundreds of photos and hours of relevant undercover footage.

The outcome was the November 2020 landmark arrest of six fishing concession owners, alleged poachers and traffickers, on charges of leading organized crime against health and the environment. This is the first time that Mexican prosecutors have made accusations linking clandestine fishing conspirators with a drug cartel whose transport route they are thought to utilize.

Evidence resulted in four of the suspects going to jail in Hermosillo, Sonora: Sunshine R.; Enrique M.; Juan Luis G., known as “La Yegua”; and former Federal Environmental Prosecutor Enrique G. (“El Kiki”), injured in March 2019 while being pursued for a totoaba in his possession. Luis A. and his wife Carmen were released.

Contrary to some expectations, however, the shakeup did not increase public security. By the time López Obrador arrived in the Baja California state capital of Mexicali in December to showcase the joint law enforcement venture, he had to concede, “We intended to go to San Felipe, but I didn’t want to now because I want progress on the integrated program. We will visit that area when the time is ripe.”

About 200 fishing villagers mobbed the federal installations of the coast guard after its members brought ashore the wounded Garcia Toledo, who later died, and his injured fishing companion. Both were rescued by Sea Shepherd crew. Convinced the environmentalists of Sea Shepherd are a threat to their livelihoods, the protesters stoned people and buildings, set fires to cars and boats, and triggered a call for air, land and sea support, the Navy Secretariat reported.

The aggression, which originated with projectiles hurled at the Sea Shepherd from a number of fishing skiffs, was only the latest in a pattern of escalating violence since a 2019 incident in which a Sea Shepherd vessel was illegally boarded and set fire.

Mexico’s desperate fishing villages seek way forward

The up-and-coming generation of the fishing families who founded this port village is studying Aquaculture at the local high school and the state capital’s Autonomous University of Baja California, hoping education will help them create the sustainability to revive their collapsed Sea of Cortez commercial fishery.

The involvement of drug cartel operatives in the illegal trade of critically endangered totoaba and vaquita porpoise bycatch here has eclipsed efforts to enforce a five-year-long ban on gillnets, provoking foreign sanctions on the village’s all important seafood exports.

Having spent their lives in and around the Upper Gulf of California, fishing family members have begun applying their studies, boating skills and intimate knowledge of the area to remove the clandestine fishnets, called ghost nets, from the no-catch zone of the Vaquita Refuge.

Half a decade back, they formed the local non-profit Fishing Alternative of Baja California, or Pesca ABC, to design a program helping protect the vaquita and their own economic future.

International non-governmental organizations, marine scientists, the Agricultural and Rural Development Ministry, and the Environmental and Natural Resources Ministry, as well as the Baja California state government, welcomed them.

In 2019, Pesca ABC won Mexico’s highest honors awarded for Ecosystem Restoration at the first national competition “Sharing Experiences to Cultivate Ideas”, promoted through the National Commission for Protected Natural Areas.

Participants demonstrated what forward-thinking could do in the refuge, which is located in a part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site where no catch is permitted.

Their combined and sustained efforts paid off with more than 655 ghost nets being removed and as many as 20 vaquitas still alive, despite increased illegal fishing in the habitat where they once numbered nearly 600.

The rescue work now is stalled, however, not only because the coronavirus pandemic health crisis suctioned away federal funds that otherwise would have subsidized outboard motor fuel, but also because of escalating dangers posed by those involved in illicit trade.

The most recent in a series of violent incidents occurred on New Year’s Eve, a month after the landmark arrest and confinement of four fishing concession owners, alleged poachers, and traffickers on charges of leading organized crime against health and environment.

This was the first time that Mexican prosecutors have made accusations linking clandestine fishing conspirators with a drug cartel whose transport route they are thought to utilize.

Totoaba was abundant when San Felipe was founded in the early 20th century. The species was declared endangered and protected in 1979. A marked rise in trafficking began in 2012.

With one of the recently captured suspects, Sunshine R., garnering control in 2014 of the four fishing permits of Baja Mar Cooperative, to which he previously did not belong, the competition has been crushing for undercapitalized legal fishing.

When the government began suspending permits, seasons and catch areas in 2015, legal fishing incomes dropped annually from 10,000 to 6,000, to 4,000 pesos a month.

By 2018, the insufficient enforcement of bans resulted in desperate illegal fishing. The totoaba catch bourgeoned. Shrimpers without permits had to sell their catch to those with permits. The pay, it is rumored, was partly in drugs.

For five years, the consumption of methamphetamines has been rising, along with common crimes. Once-productive fishermen now are found addicted in the streets. The quality of life is declining in San Felipe and the Sonoran fishing town across the Sea of Cortez, El Golfo de Santa Clara.

In recouping the fishery of the Upper Gulf, hands on deck know that the way forward is not only about enforcing bans; it’s also about government and community collaboration to strike upon an adequate recovery package and acceptable catch alternatives.

While both factions are slow to change, the little-known option of the suripera fishnet might have a chance to capture their mutual acceptance.

This modified cast net is in use at the world’s first Fair Trade USA wild-caught shrimp fishery, a sustainable Gulf of California blue shrimp cooperative association, certified since 2016 in Sinaloa, Sonora’s neighbor state to the south.

Dominican fishing villages are receiving support from U.S. AID and the U.S. Forest Service for transitioning to this artisanal technique to protect their coral reef and shrimp industry.

The technique is similar to the one employing a butterfly net for shrimping through the centuries on the Mexican lake of Patzcuaro in Michoacán.

Research shows the suripera could lead to a 20-fold income increase with a 50-fold decrease in the shrimp catch if fishing cooperatives achieve certification by an independent fair-trade agency.

The AMLO Administration is shoring up the fishing community with its universal assistance programs for youth training, student grants and aid to vulnerable family members.

Yet the administration has removed subsidies that once compensated fishing cooperative members to refrain from fishing. Plus, official relations are strained with a legacy of authority deceit remaining from previous administrations.

The thousands of able-bodied coop members could really benefit by a certification process that would create a chain of production verification resulting in a label designating their output as “sustainably caught.”

The United States’ market, Mexico biggest shrimp consumer, is willing to pay $21 a pound at the dock in San Felipe or El Golfo de Santa Clara for certified sustainable shrimp catch, about four times the cost of the catch using suriperas.

The profit margin is accentuated by the fact the cost of operating with suriperas is one-third to one-half that required in conventional shrimping. However, the fishing families have yet to receive the international solidarity to tool up for fair trade.