Greenpeace activists help stop illegal gillnet fishing in the race to save vaquitas

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Will we let the vaquita vanish? Photo courtesy NOAA.

More enforcement, support for sustainable fishing practices needed to protect world’s most endangered marine mammal

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Marine mammal conservation advocates with Greenpeace last week said that their patrols in the northern Gulf of California found 10 illegal gillnets, which were removed by Mexico’s environmental authorities.

The patrols by the Greenpeace vessel Esperanza are aimed at protecting vaquitas, the world’s smallest and most critically endangered porpoise species. Based on the latest scientific surveys, there are less than 100 vaquitas remaining.

To try and protect the species, the Mexican government enacted a two-year gillnet fishing ban. The vaquitas are caught in the gillnets as fishermen illegally try to catch another endangered species — totoaba, which are sold illegally on the black market to satisfy Asian demand for their swim bladders.

During the most recent Greenpeace mission, the Esperanza was able to patrol just a small part of the protected area where gillnets are banned, about 70 square kilometers of the 11,000-square-kilometer protected area. The illegal gillnets were found near the Bay of San Felipe.

“We were able to patrol only a (small) part, but we are going to continue this job starting in September with the help of the fishing communities and the Mexican authorities,” said Silvia Diaz, with Greenpeace. Diaz said it’s likely there are more illegal gillnet fishing operations in the larger protected area.

Currently, fishermen are fishing in the southernmost reaches of the vaquita reserve, but during the winter, the totoaba move north and the fishermen follow. So far, there have been no reports of vaquitas dying in the gillnets during recent months, Diaz said.

In a blog post describing the patrols, Greenpeace said there are only two government officials responsible for monitoring the perimeter of the marine reserve. Greenpeace advocates also met with local fisherment to try and start developing more sustainable fishing practices, but Diaz said the key thing is to halt the illegal totoaba fishing.

“If there is no real effort to monitor the area for illegal fishing, the vaquita will disappear by 2018,” she said in the Greenpeace blog post.

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