Focusing on illegal trade could help protect world’s most endangered marine mammal
By Bob Berwyn
In a hopeful sign for the critically endangered vaquita, Mexican environmental and law enforcement officials have indicated they’ll work more closely with conservation groups to track illegal fishing in the upper Gulf of California, and try to stop the trade of illegal fish in the region.
The vaquita is the world’s most endangered marine mammal. The small dolphins live only in a few thousand square miles of ocean in the northern Gulf of California. Biologists estimate the total population at fewer than 100 individuals.
The main threat to the species is illegal gillnet fishing, primarily for totoaba, a type of seabass targeted by fishermen because its swim bladder fetches a high price in Asia, where it’s valued for purported medicinal qualities.
In early October, Mexican officials said a group of agencies that coordinate environmental and law enforcement policies in the region reached several agreements aimed at trying to prevent the extinction of vaquitas.
Mexico’s environment and natural resources secretary, Rafael Pacchiano, said the government agencies will work to identify the presence of foreign buyers of totoaba bladders in the upper Gulf of California and establish coordination with the customs service in the United States to avoid the trade of totoaba bladders.
The government will also try to step up environmental enforcement in the region. Currently there are only two inspectors covering an extensive area, not nearly enough to track and curtail illegal fishing.
Pacchiano also said the Mexican government will build communications channels with non-governmental organizations that are monitoring fishing in vaquita habitat to get more information about illegal activities. In the past few months, monitoring missions by conservation groups helped identify some of the illegal fishing hotspots.
Monitoring by the groups, including Greenpeace, showed that there is not enough enforcement of the gillnet fishing ban in the vaquita conservation zone.
There is also a commitment to increase international coordination with the governments of the United States and China, where most of the totoaba bladders end up.
Finally, the government will also explore options for temporary employment for the fishing community for the ongoing work within the tourism sector in San Felipe, BC.
In a statement, Greenpeace Mexico believes that these agreements can help the vaquita by providing better monitoring and control in the area. The nonprofit group said it’s especially important to consider the future for local fishermen in Santa Clara and San Felipe, who require sustainable and legal economic alternatives that will not jeopardize the vaquita and its habitat.