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The Fight to Save Mexico’s Vaquitas from Extinction

Sarah Gilman - Hakai Magazine
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September 26, 2017

Fewer than 30 vaquita porpoise survive in Mexico. To protect this species we must support sustainable fishing practices and the local fisherman working to make a difference. #SaveTheVaquita (Aquarium of the Pacific)

Proclamations of doom for the vaquita have been common in articles covering the species for at least a decade. But now, it seems certain that the porpoise has one last bid at survival.


This October, Mexico’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, or SEMARNAT, plans to launch a Hail Mary that will cost more than $5-million in 2017 alone to round up as many vaquitas as possible, and hold them in captivity for as long as it takes to make their habitat safe. Scientists, veterinarians, and experts from organizations in Mexico, the United States, and other countries hope to find them by using acoustic monitors, visual observers, and trained US Navy dolphins. Then, they’ll place nets in their path, and if they can catch them, immediately disentangle them and transport them to temporary open-water enclosures in the Upper Gulf until a more permanent sanctuary can be developed.

It’s risky: not all porpoise species tolerate captivity. Even if vaquitas turn out to be among those that do, little is known about what they need to thrive and breed. “We have to be incredibly rapid students of how to deal with fully captive populations and be in there for the long term,” says Barbara Taylor, lead of the US-based Southwest Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Mammal Genetics Program and a key member of CIRVA. “It’s going to be decades.”

It’s unclear how many vaquitas will be left to catch. This past spring, Jaramillo-Legorreta quietly deployed a handful of acoustic monitors a few months earlier than usual. Then, not long before vaquitas reached peak media visibility in June — with US movie star Leonardo DiCaprio and Mexico’s richest man, Carlos Slim, throwing their weight behind vaquita conservation efforts — CIRVA revealed that the creatures had all but disappeared. The monitors detected vaquitas only twice, far fewer times than anticipated. Until results are in from this summer’s full monitoring effort, “the data are hard to interpret,” Barbara Taylor, lead of the US-based Southwest Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Mammal Genetics Program says. But they “make us very worried.”

San Felipe, in April, is an oasis of activity in an otherwise silent desert. On the first weekend of the month, tourists pour into the town of 25,000 to watch tricked-out pickups and motorcycles roar through the San Felipe 250 off-road race. On the third weekend of the month, Easter weekend, still more tourists fill the beaches and the waterfront esplanade. Banda music vibrates the air, and couples lean into each other at a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe that overlooks the sea from a promontory scattered with plastic cups and silk flowers.

... It’s easy to see that every economic opportunity counts in San Felipe. April’s tourism boom is more exception than norm, and though the global economic recession has ebbed, abandoned houses and closed businesses are still abundant, and half-built, skeletal hotels loom along the shore. As the tensions escalated this spring with the closure of the corvina fishery and the lead-up to the permanent gill net ban, fishermen in Golfo de Santa Clara — a smaller Upper Gulf community that is almost wholly dependent on fishing — burned 15 government vehicles and patrol boats and beat some officials.

And after an international coalition of NGOs began pushing a blanket Mexican shrimp boycott on vaquitas’ behalf, Sunshine Antonio Rodriguez, a co-op owner and the leader of a large local fishing federation, led a protest in San Felipe, where a panga inscribed with “Sea Shepherd” and “SEMARNAT” was burned in effigy. He also warned that hundreds of pangas would go after Sea Shepherd’s ships if they didn’t leave within five days, which landed him a restraining order.

“Did we threaten them? Yes we did,” Rodriguez explains when I meet him at his RV resort in San Felipe. “Because in a matter of speaking, all the other NGOs are threatening Mexico and the fishing industry. They’re judging all fishermen as equal. To me, that’s a declaration of war.” None of this bodes well for vaquitas: a significant number of San Felipe residents still don’t believe they exist, and in the chaos, Rodriguez’s star has risen. People are disoriented and worried, and in times of uncertainty, they will follow the leaders who emerge.

Read the rest at Hakai Magazine

  Check out Deep Blue Conservancy

  Check out The Western Ecological Society

  Check out Ecological Group of Costa Verde

  Check out Association for Environmental Unity in Mexico

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