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vaquita porpoise Fewer than a dozen vaquita are estimated to remain.

Mexico gives up on maintaining fishing-free zone to protect vaquita porpoise

Environmentalists claim the government has abandoned the endangered species

A fishing-free zone will no longer apply in the upper Gulf of California to protect the critically endangered vaquita marina porpoise, of which fewer than a dozen are believed to remain.

A fishing-free “zero tolerance” zone where the use of gillnets was prohibited had been in place in the upper reaches of the gulf – the only place vaquitas live – and was even enlarged last September but the federal government on Wednesday officially abandoned the policy of maintaining it.

The “zero tolerance” zone has been replaced with a sliding scale of sanctions if more than 60 boats are repeatedly seen in the area, where totoaba, a fish whose swim bladder is a delicacy in China and sells for thousands of dollars per kilogram, coexist with the vaquitas.

Many of the latter, the world’s smallest porpoise species, have died after becoming entangled in nets set to catch the lucrative totoaba.

The deaths continued even after the “zero tolerance” zone was established in 2017 as fishermen frequently encroached on it and authorities were unable to enforce it. Now the situation appears likely to become even worse.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society vessels on vaquita patrol.
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society vessels on vaquita patrol.

Environmental experts cited by the Associated Press (AP) said the decision to scrap the fishing-free zone effectively abandons the remaining vaquitas to the gillnets responsible for their near extinction.

Alex Olivera, Mexico representative for the Center for Biological Diversity, said the new rules stipulate a sliding scale of punishments for something that shouldn’t be allowed to occur in the first place.

For example, the National Aquaculture and Fisheries Commission said it will only use 60% of its enforcement personnel if 20 or fewer fishing boats are seen in the vaquita’s Upper Gulf of California habitat where the “zero tolerance” zone was established.

“This is stupid. They are waiting to count boats in an area designated as ‘zero tolerance,’ where there shouldn’t be a single boat,” Olivera told AP. “They are letting in dozens of boats. This is the end of the concept of zero tolerance. There is just going to be dissuasion.”

The new rules “imply not protecting the vaquita,” said a conservation expert not named by AP due to a fear of repercussions.

“It appears that fisheries authorities want to drive the vaquita to extinction,” the expert said.

AP said the sliding-scale punishments “seem doomed to irrelevance” given that authorities were unable to effectively enforce the “zero tolerance” zone. The navy has worked with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to remove gillnets from the area but they have often been outnumbered and even attacked by fishermen.

The Sea Shepherd vessel the Farley Mowat has been attacked on repeated occasions, including in January this year when fishermen aboard at least five pangas threw lead weights and molotov cocktails at both the crew and military officials who were on board.

The gillnets used to catch totoaba are expensive and fishermen consequently harass conservation vessels to try to get their crew to return nets they removed. Fishermen say they have not received any compensation from the federal government for income they have lost due to restrictions on where they can fish.

Meanwhile, the vaquita population continued despite successive governments pledging to strengthen the fight against illegal fishing. Actor Leonardo DiCaprio and billionaire businessman Carlos Slim even joined the efforts to save the vaquita during Enrique Peña Nieto’s 2012-2018 presidency but in early 2019 scientists estimated that just 10 of the marine mammals remained.

Sightings of the porpoises are now very rare but experts can estimate their numbers by using subaquatic listening devices that graph the high-frequency sounds they make.

With reports from AP

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