Two vaquita porpoises surface in the northern Gulf of California. Photo ©Todd Pusser/All Rights Reserved
By Tom Jefferson
Last week, the presidents of the US and Mexico held a joint press conference. Although it was not discussed at the press conference itself, the Fact Sheet that summarized the meeting of these two world leaders contained a seemingly-wonderful gift for those of us concerned about the welfare of the vaquita. The Fact Sheet said the following:
Both Presidents committed to intensify bilateral cooperation to protect the critically endangered vaquita marina porpoise, including through the following actions:
• Mexico will make permanent a ban on the use of gillnets in all fisheries throughout the range of the vaquita in the upper Gulf of California;
• Both countries will increase cooperation and enforcement efforts to immediately halt the illegal fishing for and illegal trade in totoaba swim bladders;
• Both countries will redouble efforts, in collaboration with international experts, to develop alternative fishing gear to gillnets that does not result in the entanglement of vaquita and establish “vaquita-safe” fisheries; and
• Both countries will establish and implement a long-term program to remove and permanently dispose of illegal and derelict fishing gear from vaquita habitat in the upper Gulf of California.
This is essentially what we have been asking for, and this announcement serves as a testament to the hard work that so many people have been putting into this issue. Of course, words and promises are one thing, but swift and effective “on the water” actions are needed for the vaquita’s rapid decline toward extinction to be halted. That must happen soon! Nevertheless, this is a positive step toward the potential recovery of the vaquita. Just the elevation of this issue to the level of discussion between two presidents is reason to celebrate!
However, our work is not over, and we must now focus on ensuring that these noble words are turned into real-world actions. There are still many concerns about how these new commitments will be implemented, and as in the past, worries persist that there will be loopholes or watering down of the regulations. Enforcement is always a concern. To be effective for the vaquita, the new regulations need to prohibit all fishing with gillnets in the entire range of the vaquita. There must be no exceptions. Ideally, there should be assistance (e.g., expediting permits, monetary compensation, training, etc.) from the government for those fishermen who want to use alternative gear to fish sustainably without endangering the vaquita (or the totoaba). We are still awaiting clarification on these how these issues will be handled.
So, with this very welcome announcement, let us take a moment to reflect on this success, and then begin anew to keep up our vigilance and pressure to make sure that the vaquita remains with us on this planet forever!
Photos taken under permit (Oficio No. DR/488/08 from the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturale Protegidas (CONANP/Secretaría del Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT), within a natural protected area subject to special management and decreed as such by the Mexican Government. This work was made possible thanks to the collaboration and support of the Coordinador de Investigación y Conservación de Mamíferos Marinos at the Instituto Nacional de Ecología (INE).