Conservation Efforts In Sea Of Cortez

Might or might not work, but it won’t be for not throwing enough money at it
BY: SARAH ROUGHAN

The President Enrique Pena Nieto visited San Felipe to formally inaugurate a plan to save the critically endangered vaquita, the world’s smallest porpoise, which is only found in the Sea of Cortez. San Felipe is on the Sea, way up almost to the top of the Baja peninsula.

vaquita.jpg With less than 100 vaquitas left, the Mexican government believes their existence is threatened by fishing with gill nets while trying to catch totoaba (Mexican sea bass).  Omar Vidal, head of the World Wildlife Fund in Mexico, says the vaquitas are “an emblematic species for Mexico, the equivalent of the panda for China.” Well, that could be argued, since none of us have ever heard of the vaquita and while they have a certain panace about them, they are not furry and cuddly.

 Sunshine Antonio Rodriguez Pena, current President of the Fishing Federation up there, tells us tourism has been off for the last seven years, so the locals are reliant on the fishing industry.  

According to Sunshine it is true the number vaquita are diminishing, but  it is not due to the gill nets, he insists. ”The gillnets are so thin,” he explains, “If a vaquita were to be caught in one, he could break through the nets.”  

President Sunshine explains, “They’ve spent over 50 million dollars over the past two presidents trying to protect the vaquita with no success.  The government has confiscated thousands of nets, and not one vaquita has ever been found in even one of them,” he insists. However, the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), insists that 40 to 80 vaquita are killed each year in the gill nets.

Canada, Mexico, and the United States launched the North American Conservation Action Plan (NACAP) for the vaquita. It’s a strategy to financially support Mexico’s efforts to recover the vaquita. It compensates fishermen who choose one of three alternatives: rent-out, switch-out, or buy-out.

In the rent-out option, fishermen are paid if they agree to terminate their fishing inside the vaquita refuge area. There is a penalty if fishermen breach the contract which includes getting their vessels taken by the government. The switch-out option provides fishermen with compensation for switching to vaquita-safe harvesting technology. Finally the buy-back program compensates fisherman for permanently turning in their fishing permits as well as their respective gear.

In 2008, because of how few fisherman were enrolling in the switch-out option, PACE Vaquita added a yearly, short-term option for fishermen, letting them simply rent the vaquita-safe fishing equipment yearly for compensation. Then, in 2010, this option was broken down even further, giving fishermen the option of buying the vaquita-safe net, or paying the yearly rent, but for less compensation.  Only about a third of the fishermen in the area have accepted any of  these terms so far. Some continue to fish in the protected areas despite the economic alternatives.

So why are the fisherman cooperating at all with this most recent initiative? “The difference this time is the government is listening to the fisherman and giving us everything we are asking for,” says President Sunshine. “Although they will be sacrificing their culture and daily way of life, this $37 million initiative (The gift from the United States), will include funds to compensate the fisherman. Of course they’re not complaining.”  Sunshine says that the two year ban will give scientists an opportunity to determine what is really killing off the vaquita.  Some believe it could be due to the lack of water from the Colorado river and lack of minerals that it used to provide.  He explains, “In order for us to prove it is not the fisherman, we have to get out of the water.”

The government is taking steps to enforce the gill net ban. They brought four large speed boats, satellite tracking and drones. They also have a large coast guard ship with radar and eight different small boats that will verify what happened if something is caught on radar.

As for the fishermen of San Felipe, they are glad that the efforts to save the vaquita will not interfere with their income over the next two years,  President Sunshine explained “This is the first time any government has looked at the reality of the people.  They didn’t just come in and tell us what to do.  For the first time, there is a president who believes in fishing and is helping fisherman.”

And it helps that the United States is paying for most of this possibly impossible mission. ,