Representatives of conservation groups at this week's press conference. Representatives of conservation groups at this week's press conference.

Agencies blamed for vaquita numbers

Conservation groups say they didn't do enough to protect the species

Two federal agencies are to blame for the decline in numbers of the vaquita marina porpoise, according to conservation groups.

Greenpeace, Defenders of Wildlife and other organizations charge that the National Aquaculture and Fisheries Commission (Conapesca) and the National Fisheries Institute (Inapesca) have failed to adequately protect the critically endangered mammal, which is endemic to the Sea of Cortés.

Juan Carlos Cantú of Defenders of Wildlife told a press conference in Mexico City that because the vaquita is not a commercial species, fishing authorities have not been overly concerned about it.

“If the vaquitas cease to exist, the problem is solved. There will no longer be guidelines to follow or anything to worry about,” he said.

Miguel Rivas of Greenpeace condemned Conapesca saying that the agency didn’t supervise the enforcement of a closed season for eight protected species.

Conapesca also failed to supply alternative nets to fishermen to avoid the capture of the at-risk porpoise, the groups charge.

Fishing of the totoaba, whose swim bladder is considered a delicacy in Asia, is the greatest threat to the vaquita marina because they are often bycatch in gillnets.

While gillnet fishing was permanently banned in late June, vaquitas can also become trapped in nets used to catch corvina and catch limits for that species have been improperly increased by 86% between 2012 and 2017, a report by the groups stated, adding that boats used may provide cover for illegal totoaba fishing.

The organizations have called on President Enrique Peña Nieto to dismiss Conapesca head Mario Aguilar and the president of Inapesca and return control of the sector to the Environment Secretariat (Semarnat).

Aguilar disputed the allegations although the commission said that any failure to enforce fishing season restrictions was a result of budgetary constraints.

He said fishboats are required to carry devices which allow authorities to track them, adding that Conapesca was working with environmental agencies to enforce rules while compensating fishermen adversely affected by bans.

Those payments have also been criticized for inequity. Documents obtained via a freedom of information request show that the majority of the 2,700 fishermen who received compensation were given US $220 to $440 per month in exchange for not setting gillnets. However, a select few received as much as $63,000.

Aguilar said the payment system is based on the number of fishing permits held by individual fishermen, but is being reviewed.

Estimates vary but some experts say that vaquita numbers could be as low as 30 and the gillnet ban may have come too late to save the species.

Mexico, China and the United States agreed to create a tri-national task force to combat the illegal trafficking of totoaba swim bladders after meeting in Ensenada, Baja California, last week.

However, experts say that attempting to breed the vaquita marina in captivity is the best option to save the porpoise despite concerns that females could die during capture, dooming the species to extinction.

Source: El Universal (sp), Associated Press (en)

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