Fishermen in the upper Sea of Cortés, caught in the middle of efforts to protect a species of porpoise that is on the verge of extinction, faced off against environmentalists this week, protesting their presence in the area and their support for a boycott of Mexican shrimp.
Protests in Golfo de Santa Clara, Sonora, and San Felipe, Baja California, were triggered by a call two weeks ago by United States conservation organizations for the shrimp boycott, followed by a proposal last week from Mexican officials to shut down gillnet fishing in the region.
What is now “a pressure cooker,” said area fishermen, threatens to become a bomb because the gillnet ban would represent the final blow for local communities.
The ban, which would take effect April 11, is the federal fisheries secretariat’s answer to the expiry of a two-year strategy to protect the vaquita porpoise. The strategy has not been successful: the vaquita population has declined from 90 to 30 during that period, according to estimates.
The situation heated up on Thursday when fishermen and local residents boarded dozens of fishboats with the intention of “neutralizing” two vessels operated by the U.S.-based Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.
Fishermen’s spokesman Antonio Sunshine Rodríguez Peña said their intention was to contain the vessels within a “security ring” because their presence in the area was “illegal.”
“We know they don’t have permission from the Communications and Transportation Secretariat (SCT) or from Immigration or Conapesca (the National Aquaculture and Fisheries Commission) to perform studies in Mexico,” he charged.
“The big question is why are they allowed to violate the law, the rules” when fishermen must comply 100% with the law.
The Sea Shepherd vessels, the Sam Simon and the Farley Mowat, left the area later to avoid a confrontation.
But the organization called the protesters “vaquita murderers” in a Facebook post and accused Rodríguez, described as “the ringleader of the poachers,” of threatening to burn the ships.
Captain Oona Isabelle Layolle, head of Sea Shepherd’s Operation Milagro III, a surveillance campaign designed to monitor illegal fishing, said the two vessels will be soon joined by a third ship.
Sea Shepherd began surveillance nearly two years ago after signing an agreement with the Mexican government, which said the accord would provide “more eyes on the sea.”
A group of seven environmentalist organizations based in Mexico, including Greenpeace México and Cemda, the Mexican Center for Environmental Law, endorsed the actions undertaken by Sea Shepherd and asked the government to protect its crew because they had allegedly been threatened by local fishermen.
The NGOs also demanded that authorities dismantle the illegal market for totoaba, which they claimed persists despite restrictions on fishing in the area.
The fishermen’s other concern is the shrimp boycott, which is a strategy designed to pressure the Mexican government to adopt stringent measures to protect the vaquita. One measure, announced earlier this year, is to capture the remaining vaquitas and encourage them to breed in captivity.