San Diego

Rescue of the At-Risk Vaquita Porpoise

Measuring less than five feet long, hundreds of vaquitas have drowned after becoming entangled in illegal fishermen’s nets

“There’s no money and people are looking for ways to survive,” Jesus Montezuma said. “One can’t go fishing; they [the Mexican government] don’t let us go out and work.”

Montezuma is a fisherman in San Felipe, Baja California. Like hundreds of other fishermen, he is struggling to provide for his wife and three children.

“In fact, there are people that go fishing in the middle of the night just to be able to support their families,” Montezuma said.

The Mexican government prohibited commercial fishing in the upper Gulf of California in 2015 to protect the vaquita porpoise, the smallest marine mammal. The government believes there are fewer than 10 of the critically endangered mammals left in the Sea of Cortez. The sanctuary is the only place the vaquita can be found in the world.

While sharks have been determined to be the only natural predators of the vaquita, humans have proven otherwise. Hundreds of vaquitas, measuring less than five feet long, have drowned after becoming entangled in illegal fishermen’s nets.

It’s why Montezuma can’t go fishing and provide for his family.

The Drug of the Sea

Another endangered species is hurting the chances of survival for the vaquita. The totoaba fish grows up to seven feet and catching them is a lucrative business. The totoaba’s bladder is believed to have medicinal properties. It is sold for thousands of dollars and smuggled to China and Hong Kong. Poachers and illegal fishing are pushing the totoaba and vaquita toward extinction while leaving local fishermen without their life-sustaining resource.

In an effort to stop black market poaching, the Mexican government outlawed all gillnets, a fishing net which is hung vertically, in the vaquitas’ refuge. In return, it promised compensation for fishermen being put out of work.

However, in December under the presidency of Andres Manuel Lópes Obrador, the federal government suspended the economic support granted to fishermen. The new Comprehensive Program for Fisheries Sustainability in the upper gulf has no funds for 2019, leaving fishermen like Montezuma without monthly compensation.

Livelihoods or Death

“Three people have died trying to make a living,” Montezuma said. “At night, they go fishing without lights so they are not seen,” Montezuma said a boat crashed into another in the upper gulf at night.

“Fishermen are opting for fishing the totoaba, while there’s no compensation; people are risking everything because they have to put food on the table,” said Montezuma, who has not been paid since December.

The Mexican Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources promised to provide social programs and jobs for fishing communities, but fishermen refused the initiative. Fishermen argued it does not give an immediate solution for their people facing hunger.

Alejandro Mesa Ramos, 27, started fishing with his dad when he was 12. Ramos, like Montezuma, hasn’t received economic support in months.

“Yesterday, we tried to fish for shrimp along the edge of the sea because we want to bring something to eat,” Ramos said. “I have three children and I have to take them to school and feed them.”

Ramos said the monthly compensation he received from the Mexican government was equivalent to $445 per month, just enough to cover the essentials. He is still owed over $1,300.

On March 6, an international commission of experts estimated six to 22 vaquitas remain in the Sea of Cortez. Jorge Urban, a biology professor at the Baja California Sur University said about 22 vaquitas were heard over a network of acoustic monitors. This number is higher than previous estimates.

However, on March 13, Sea Shepherd, a marine wildlife conservation organization that patrols and protects the vaquita refuge, announced that a dead vaquita was found caught in a gillnet. The vaquita was retrieved in such an advanced state of decomposition that a genetic analysis had to be done to confirm its identity. The commission noted that the number of surviving vaquitas is more likely closer to 10.

Jean-Paul Geoffroy is the leader of Sea Shepherd’s Operation Milagro V. He says he is determined to help save the vaquita from extinction.

Geoffroy wears his black Sea Shepherd hoodie, but only outside of San Felipe due to previous threats he has received from the community.

“We [Sea Shepherd] do support the fishermen returning to their work, returning to the sea, but as long as they follow the law and the rules to make fishing truly sustainable,” Geoffroy said.

Sea Shepherd Ship Attacked by Poachers

According to a Sea Shepherd press release, on January 31, one of the Sea Shepherd vessels was violently attacked by over 50 people posing as fishermen on board 20 high-speed boats. Projectiles, including lead weights and large stones were hurled by poachers, shattering windows. They also threw Molotov cocktails that set a side of the Sea Shepherd ship on fire.

The press release said crewmembers fended off the attackers using emergency fire hoses while Mexican Navy sailors and Federal Police stationed on board opened fire into the air and sea to deter the attackers. This was the second attack in less than a month.

Nets Bigger than a Football Field

Sea Shepherd focuses on the retrieval of gillnets located inside the vaquita refuge. While fishermen and poachers enter the refuge in the middle of the night to leave their nets undetected, their location is recorded by Sea Shepherd’s crewmembers using radar. At sunrise, the gillnets are extracted and destroyed.

“We have retrieved gillnets that have up to 62 totoabas, in just one net. Just a few days ago we had a net with two totoabas,” Geoffroy said.

Sea Shepherd has retrieved nets as long as 400 meters. That’s three-and-half times the size of a football field. According to Geoffroy, most of the nets retrieved are about 250 meters long. Losing a net can be costly as they range between $1,000 to $4,000.

“We are not taking anybody’s job,” Geoffroy said. “We are simply here to support what the government has stipulated. If that changes, that will be the government’s decision. We are not the ones who decide where the refuge is. That’s decided by the Mexican government.”

Disposal of Totoaba Fish

“We retrieve gillnets that have totoaba,” Locky Maclean, Director of Sea Shepherd Marine Operations, said. “Live totoabas are released and the ones that are already deceased are put on the deck. We have a strict protocol with photographic evidence, a cutting protocol basically destroying the bladder,” Maclean explained.

According to Maclean, there are federal agents from the Mexican government on board Sea Shepherd’s vessels at all times. The destruction protocol was put in place by Mexico’s Federal Attorney’s Office for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA).

For the first time in four years, fishermen illegally returned to their life-sustaining trade on March 23 in hopes the Mexican government presents a comprehensive solution that allows them to fish legally while protecting the vaquita.

“What are we going to live off of? What are we going to eat? I don’t want the money anymore,” Montezuma said. “I want them [the Mexican Government] to let me work. I was living better before than I am now.

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