Sea Shepherd partners with Mexican government to halt the illegal gill net fishing that threatens the vaquita

Hong Kong prosecution of black market traders could help slow illegal fishing in Gulf of California vaquita preserve

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Vaquita porpoise. Photo courtesy Paula Olson/NOAA.
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Wildlive conservation activists and the Mexican government are partnering to try and save a remnant vaquita population in the upper Gulf of California. Map courtesy Sea Shepherd.

By Bob Berwyn

Conservation groups and the Mexican government are making progress in trying to avert extinction of the vaquita porpoise, a small marine mammal that lives only in a few thousand square miles in the northern Gulf of California.

Late last month, Greenpeace announced that several Hong Kong traders involved in selling illegal marine products from the Gulf of California were convicted and fined for their activities, which could help deter more trade in illegal marine products from the region. It’s that trade that’s pushing the vaquita to the brink of extinction.

And in the Gulf of California, the Mexican government has stepped up enforcement of a gill net ban that’s aimed at protecting the vaquita. At the same time, the Mexican government has partnered with Sea Shepherd, giving the nonprofit direct action group the authority to remove illegal gill nets. Two Sea Shepherd vessels are patrolling the region as part of the group’s Operation Milagro II.

According to Greenpeace, there are now more than 2,400 employees that have been trained to enforce the gill net ban. Between March and December, 2015, there were thousands of inspections related to vaquita conservation resulting in the arrest of 58 people and the confiscation of 265 gill nets.

Vaquitas live only in a small sliver of the Gulf of California and their numbers have dropped drastically during recent decades, likely to less than 100 individuals. The main reason for the decline is illegal gill net fishing for totoaba, a type of sea bass that is also listed as endangered. The nets set for totoaba ensnare vaquitas, who can’t escape the mesh and drown.

Totoaba bladders are prized as a folk remedy in Asia and fetch thousands of dollars on the black market in Hong Kong. That high value has motivated Mexican fishermen to violate the gill net ban, raising the classic issue of black market supply and demand — as with other illegal trade, both sides of the equation must be addressed to solve the problem.

To address the demand side, Greenpeace International has been pushing Hong Kong authorities to prosecute black market traders as the criminals they are under the law. Two traders convicted under black market laws were fined between HK$30,000 and HK$80,000 ($4,000 to $8,000). The maximum penalty is a fine of up to HK$5 million and 2 years in prison.

From Hong Kong, Greenpeace activists said the initial fines help highlight the issue, but that they’re still too low to deter the illegal trade. Prosecutors need to aggressively go after the wholesalers rather than just the retailers, according to the organization.

Also, the offenders are only the retailers, not the wholesalers who are the real investors on this totoaba issue. If we cannot stop the wholesalers, the practice will probably continue, but the wholesalers will become much more alert and keep the whole business under the water. More details are available in this story by The Standard of Hong Kong.

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Back in Mexico, Sea Shepherd has been invited by the Mexican government to help with enforcing the gill net ban in the critical area. In a January 4 post on the Operation Milagro II blog, Sea Shepherd said the partnership with the Mexican government demonstrates a commitment to saving the vaquita.

The agreement came after Captain Oona Layolle of Sea Shepherd’s research vessel R/V Martin Sheen met with representatives from the Mexican Navy, Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) and the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA) to develop a joint plan to find and retrieve illegal fishing nets found in the protected vaquita porpoise refuge.

“This expanded agreement and cooperation with the Mexican authorities demonstrates how crucial it is that gillnets are removed from the vaquita’s refuge,” said Captain Layolle. “With less than 97 vaquita surviving, any death is devastating to their survival.

“We hope that our collaboration with the Mexican government will set an example for other governments,” said Layolle. “The vaquita needs our vigilant efforts to survive. Sea Shepherd will not be deterred in protecting marine wildlife.”

Conservation activists say that the two-year gill net ban won’t be enough to ensure recovery of the vaquita. Even if the illegal gill net fishing is stopped completely and immediately, it will take decades for the population to recover to a sustainable level.

Much depends on how many vaquita actually remain in the Gulf of California. After a 2012 survey, scientists estimated a population of about 245 individuals. Starting with that number, a historical population of 600-700 vaquita could be recovered in about 30 years, according to biologist Miguel Rivas, a Mexico-based Greenpeace campaigner.

But the most recent estimate of the vaquita population stands at just 57 individuals, which means that recovery would take much longer, according to Rivas, who said that those ballpark estimates are a personal calculation based on information from a 2012 study published in the journal PLOS ONE.

According to Greenpeace, the Mexican government has been doing new research and trying to estimate the population of the vaquita. That research started in October and is supposed to be finished soon, with results expected in early 2016.

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