The Mexican government's erratic approach to saving the vaquita marina porpoise in the sea off the northwestern state of Baja California has only furthered the critical threat illegal fishing poses for the species.
After years of collaboration with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to combat illegal fishing, the Mexican government announced the birth of two vaquitas in early April. Both the non-governmental organization and the Mexican Navy credit their thorough patrols of the area for the small sign of recovery. Recent estimates had counted just eight vaquita individuals remaining in total.
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The news of the births came as a surprise, given that in July 2021, the Mexican government officially scrapped the zero-tolerance area (ZTA), where fishing had been banned inside the Vaquita Protection Refuge. While fishing with gillnets, long wall-like structures that are dragged along the ocean floor, remains banned, the government has replaced the zero-tolerance approach with a sliding scale of sanctions based on the number of fishing vessels in the area. Experts lampooned this move, with one calling it "madness...they are leaving the door open to dozens of vessels."
Adding to the pressure on the vaquita marina, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) approved the trade of captive-bred totoaba fish in March 2022. The swim bladders of the totoaba are prized as a delicacy in China and fetch high prices there, which made it a mainstay target for illegal fishing in Mexico.
Until March, international trade for the totoaba, which shares waters with the vaquita marina, had been illegal. This is likely to further encourage fishermen in the area.
While the vaquitas are not the target of illegal fishing, they are often bycatch. They become entangled in gillnets used to catch totoaba, shrimp and other fish.
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While controlling illegal fishing in the vaquita habitat would always be a challenge, Mexico's meandering approach to enforcement has made the situation even more difficult.
There have been some attempts at prosecuting wildlife traffickers. In February 2021, the government increased penalties for totoaba trafficking and followed this with several arrests of alleged totoaba traffickers linked to organized criminal groups. A source working for a conservation group in Baja California, who wished to remain anonymous for security concerns, said this was the first successful intelligence-led operation to take down totoaba traffickers.
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The Mexican Navy, however, has few options to crack down on the number of vessels fishing inside the vaquita refuge.
According to the conservation source, the government’s unofficial policy towards illegal fishing in the area remains non-confrontational. "The navy's role is to ask fishermen to move their nets out of the ZTA without forcing them to do," the source explained. While there is some level of compliance, dozens of vessels are routinely spotted inside the refuge area.
Andrea Crosta of Earth League International (ELI) told Mongabay that while taking down larger criminal structures will help ensure the vaquitas' survival, the problem ultimately lies in tackling demand. Chinese traders operating in Mexico are the most critical link in the supply chain, moving the swim bladder to East Asia, according to Crosta.