The Mexican government has launched what many experts see as a last-ditch attempt to save the vaquita marina, one of the world’s smallest and most endangered cetaceans.
A species of porpoise with distinctive panda-style black markings around its eyes, the vaquita (Phocoena sinus) lives only in northern Mexico’s upper Gulf of California. The most recent estimates suggest there are only about 150 individuals left, a little over a quarter of those living just a decade before.
“We have about two years, more or less, to eliminate mortality,” says marine biologist Lorenzo Rojas Bracho, a leading expert on the vaquita and an employee of the National Ecology Institute (INE), a state-run research center. “We have to try at all costs to stop the population from falling below 100 individuals. This is our last chance.”
The steep decline in vaquita numbers usually is blamed on the animals getting entangled accidentally in the nets of small fishing boats targeting such staples in the region as shrimp and gulf corvina (Cynoscion othonopterus).
And as the population shrinks, even a few such deaths annually represent potential disaster for a species whose females only produce one offspring every two years. The fact that the vaquita’s hurtle toward extinction has happened despite government measures explicitly designed to protect the animal only has added to the sense of urgency.
But this time, authorities say, the government has the will and resources to produce results.
“In the past, decrees were signed and published, meetings held and agreements reached,” Environment Minister Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada told EcoAméricas recently. “But the reality is that we never attacked this complex social, technical, political and scientific problem the way we are now.”
The minister was speaking on the way to launch the new vaquita campaign in the Pacific coast city of Ensenada, located in Mexico’s Baja California state.
Under the slogan “Let’s Save the Vaquita,” the launch was a political heavyweight affair designed to punch home the message that this time authorities are serious. The minister was accompanied by high-level federal bureaucrats, not just from his own ministry, but also from the agricultural ministry and even the Mexican navy. And that’s not to mention representatives of the two state governments involved, as well as spokesmen for the region’s fishing communities.
The event came scarcely 10 weeks after President Felipe Calderón marked World Environment Day with a speech singling out reforestation, climate change and saving the vaquita among his government’s environmental priorities.
“I have been involved in trying to save the vaquita for over 10 years now, and I have to say that this is the first time the authorities are taking the issue really seriously,” says INE’s Rojas Bracho, who was part of a team that in 1997 carried out the only major effort to gauge the size of the vaquita population.
That study put the number at 567. The current estimate of 150 was arrived at in two ways. First it was calculated using statistical models that account for, among other things, the rates of reproduction, accidental deaths in nets and deaths by natural causes. The figure also was developed by calculating the rate of decline suggested by decreases in vaquita-sonar detections made with underwater microphones.
In a 2007 paper that was published in the journal Conservation Biology, Rojas Bracho and five other vaquita experts admitted that the current estimate is not particularly rigorous. But, the scientists argued, the time had come to focus efforts on pushing the Mexican government to take urgent and decisive action, rather than on increasing knowledge.
Lest there be any doubt about their message, they titled their paper “Saving the Vaquita: Immediate Action, Not More Data.”
There were similar exhortations from international organizations ranging from the International Whaling Commission to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). All appear to have helped push the authorities to take unprecedented steps to protect a species that is believed to have developed after a population of a common species of porpoise, perhaps the Burmeister’s porpoise (Phocoena spinipinnis), got stuck in the upper gulf during the Pleistocene ice ages.
The hopes placed in the current campaign rest firstly on an emphatic pledge to enforce fishing restrictions within the Refuge Area for the Protection of the Vaquita. Billed as the answer for the vaquita when its boundaries were established in 2005, the refuge covers 488 square miles (1,264 sq kms). According to the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (Conanp), it covers some 78% of the area where vaquitas have been detected over the years.
About 60% of the refuge lies within the preexisting Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve, which covers 3,609 square miles (9,347 sq kms) and was created in 1993. The biosphere reserve is intended to protect nursing grounds for a variety of marine species and to provide a resting place for resident and migratory birds. In addition to the vaquita, it is home to the endangered totoaba fish (Totoaba macdonald).
Some 40% of the vaquita refuge extends southward beyond the reserve, on the western side of the gulf.
Fishing with gill nets and bottom trawlers has been prohibited throughout the refuge since it was set up, while the use of lines and traps has been allowed. Until now these restrictions have been left largely on paper.
With the new shrimp fishing season due to start at the end of this month, Mexico’s Environment and Natural Resources Secretariat is now promising a major enforcement effort through the office of the Federal Prosecutor for the Environment (Profepa).
Patricio Patrón, Profepa’s head, says the drive will involve permanent policing by 10 boats equipped with modern communications technology, drawing on periodic support from two navy helicopters.
“If we find vessels inside the refuge fishing with banned nets, we will confiscate them,” says Patrón, adding that repeat offenders could see their boats confiscated, too.
The other side of the strategy is a program of financial incentives for government-licensed fishermen from three main coastal towns in the upper gulf—San Felipe in Baja California, and Santa Clara and Puerto Peñasco, which are located on the eastern side of the gulf in Sonora state.
Those who are willing to hand over their boat, nets and motor can receive 400,000 pesos (US$40,000)—or more, if they have more than one fishing license. Those not willing to stop fishing are getting 45,000 pesos (US$4,500) to sweeten the pill of definitively giving up nets they have used illegally in the refuge.
In all, the incentives total around 150 million pesos (US$15 million) for this year alone—about twelve times more than was spent to offset economic impacts caused when the vaquita refuge was created.
Mexican green advocates appear heartened by the new attention and money being thrown the vaquita’s way. Their attitude contrasts to the otherwise skeptical reaction they have had to the Calderón administration’s claims that it is deeply committed to environmental conservation. And even despite the new vaquita effort, they believe still more must be done to ensure the porpoise’s rescue succeeds.
“It is true that what is being done with the vaquita is unprecedented,” says Alejandro Olivera, coordinator of Greenpeace Mexico’s Oceans Campaign. “But it is also insufficient.”
Olivera argues that the vaquita’s situation is now so delicate that no fishing at all should be allowed in the animal’s habitat. His organization also questions Profepa’s commitment to enforce the restrictions in the refuge. Greenpeace is considering sending a boat to the area to watch not only for illegal fishing, but also to spotlight lax enforcement.
In local fishing communities, the vaquita-protection incentives have touched off an undercurrent of discontent. So far, some 750 fishermen have signed up either to change careers or, in the case of the majority, collect compensation for not fishing in the refuge. But they are not all happy about the situation.
One cause of concern is the suspicion that the promised money will not materialize, leaving the initiative as one more broken government promise. Another is dissatisfaction with the payment amounts. These were calculated on the basis of the fishermen’s own reports of their catches in the refuge—information that authorities had previously ignored.
Likely as a result of under-reporting by the fishermen, who admit that until now they have been using illegal nets in the refuge, the compensation packages apparently do not make up for the income lost.
“We are cooperating for now, but we are not really convinced yet,” says fisherman Oscar Javier García of Santa Clara after watching the environment minister hand over a symbolic check to a community leader. “They are taking away our most fertile fishing grounds and not giving us enough in return.”
Worse off than García are fishermen who have fished in the refuge without government permits to do so. These fishermen, who number in the hundreds, do not qualify for any incentive payments. Some analysts worry they will continue landing their illegal catch, simply assuming the risk of getting caught.
Ernesto Enkerlin, a respected scientist who heads Conanp, admits there are still problems to deal with, particularly the need to extend the refuge to cover 100% of the habitat occupied by the vaquita. But, he insists, the government’s commitment to saving the mammal is genuine, and a bit of grumbling should not obscure the fact that a qualitatively different relationship has developed between the government and the fishing communities.
“You have to look at where we came from and where we are going,” Enkerlin says. “Two years ago, what was being done for the vaquita didn’t amount to much more than a lot of words and ideas and very few actions. The atmosphere at the meetings in 2005 [to negotiate the refuge’s creation] was very hostile and there was a lot of tension between the fishermen and those who wanted to conserve the vaquita, but this has changed. I think we can hope to negotiate an extension of the refuge to 100%, perhaps by 2010.”
This forecast leads Enkerlin to profess “85% certainty” that the vaquita population can start to recover and the species can perhaps even look forward to being dropped from the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Not that the vaquita has ever been other than a rare animal. It was not formally discovered by scientists until the 1950s, after three skulls were washed up on shore near San Felipe. A full skeleton was found some time later, but it wasn’t until 1987, when some 13 were caught in a fishing net, that anybody formally recorded the characteristics of a vaquita with flesh on it.
Since then, some wounded vaquitas accidentally brought in with shrimp have reached shore alive and stayed that way for days, or even a few weeks. None, however, has survived long enough to be released back into the gulf or, for that matter, been taken to an aquarium.
No vaquitas have been captured with scientific study in mind, not even for tagging, and they remain notoriously difficult to locate and to observe.
Growing to only 1.5 meters in length, these shy and unassuming swimmers go around in loose, easily missed aggregations of only about two mammals.
This for many years led some in local fishing communities to argue that the animal already had gone extinct and that additional vaquita-protection measures were therefore unnecessary.
Despite the vaquita’s population plunge, there is some cause for optimism to be found in their stomachs. Analysis of dead vaquitas has shown that their stomachs are typically filled with a large variety of fish, squid and crustaceans—the kinds of things porpoises eat all over the world.
This suggests that the vaquitas are living pretty well, until they accidentally run into a net. The potential for improved population numbers also should be bolstered by signs that the vaquita habitat contains a dwindling number of sharks. Declining shark populations are, to be sure, a major environmental problem, but sharks are the vaquita’s main predator.
“All other conditions seem to be OK for the vaquita,” says Rojas Bracho, the INE scientist. “If we can eliminate accidental death in nets, the chances of the population recuperating by 3 or 4 percent a year are good.”
- Johanna Tuckman