Mr. President, save Mexico's 'panda of the sea'

A vaquita killed in a gillnet near El Golfo de Santa Clara, Sonora, Mexico.

Story highlights

  • Vidal: The vaquita, Mexico's tiny porpoise, is on verge of extinction
  • Without protection and crack-down on illegal fishing practices, species will face oblivion

Omar Vidal is CEO of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Mexico. He has worked for more than three decades on conservation of natural resources and sustainable development in Mexico, the Americas, Africa, Europe and Asia with the United Nations, universities and NGOs. The opinions expressed here are his.

(CNN)In April of last year, in the remote Mexican fishing town of San Felipe, Baja California, just over 120 miles south of the U.S. border, President Enrique Peña Nieto launched a bold national effort to improve the well-being of fishing communities in the Upper Gulf of California and to save the endangered vaquita (Spanish for "little cow").

Omar Vidal
The Upper Gulf is the only place on Earth where this tiny porpoise is found. The vaquita was first known to the world in 1958 when American biologists Ken Norris and William McFarland described it from three skulls found on a beach just a few miles from where the President announced his plan. Maxing out at just five feet long, the vaquita is the smallest of the world's porpoise, dolphin, and whale species. And it's about to disappear forever.
    I joined the President in San Felipe a year ago. I ended my speech that day by sharing the conviction that this was the last opportunity to save this Mexican porpoise. I have dedicated half of my life to the study and conservation of the vaquita, dealing with six different Mexican presidents in the process.
    A totoaba, top, and a vaquita.
    Just a year later, the vaquita is now even closer to extinction. On Friday, the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) released the most recent population estimates for this porpoise, based on intensive surveys carried out between September and December 2015 by an international team of scientists supported by the Mexican government. Only around 60 vaquitas remain, according to CIRVA.
    This is terrible news. The last population count in 2014 found an estimated 97 vaquitas. This means that 40% of the remaining vaquitas died in the last year.

    The fish that could save the vaquita

    So what went wrong? A year after the President's announcement, little has been gained, and an entire year has been lost in this final sprint to save the vaquita.
    Each year, about one in five vaquitas is drowned in fishing nets. Vaquitas are killed in gillnets, a widespread type of non-selective gear that has depleted several species of importance to the local economy, such as totoaba, sharks, manta rays, corvinas and other fish. Flanked by the heads of the army, navy, environment, fisheries, and social development departments, the President announced a two-year ban on the use of all gillnets (which inadvertently catch vaquitas and drown them), an unparalleled effort to save a species often referred to as the "Mexican panda" or "panda of the sea."
    Supported by a $70 million compensation plan for the affected fishing communities, the plan also called for boosting the use of fishing gear safe for vaquitas (small trawls to catch shrimp, and fish traps), in order to allow impoverished fishermen and their families to make a living more sustainably. The problem is that President Peña Nieto's commitment to crack down on the illegal fishing of totoaba -- a large fish that lives only in the Gulf of California and is listed by Mexico, the United States and the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) as endangered -- did not materialize.
    No one hunts vaquitas directly, but when vaquitas are entangled and die in gillnets, it's because those gillnets are set to catch totoaba, and also shrimp and other fish. Fishermen target the totoaba for its swim bladder, which is prized in Asian cultures for making soup. I have stressed to President Peña Nieto that if the totoaba fishery does not stop, the fate of the vaquita will be sealed along with it.
    Not only has totoaba fishing continued, but it actually increased wildly this year. The regular seizure of totoaba nets, the number of people jailed for fishing illegally, and the numbers of dead totoabas and vaquitas retrieved by federal authorities and environmental organizations underline this. And this happened despite the dozens of marines, boats, helicopters, raids on land and sea, and even drones that patrolled the region.
    To make matters worse, efforts to scale up the use of the vaquita-safe fishing techniques have also failed. The agencies responsible for fisheries management did not deliver what the President had asked of them. Several of the fishermen they selected to be financially compensated to stop fishing with gillnets allegedly continued to fish for totoaba, and the majority of fishermen chosen to use the vaquita-safe nets did not know how to or were not committed to fishing in this way.
    Unfortunately, these breakdowns are unsurprising. For many years, I have witnessed how fisheries agencies have undermined environmental authorities' efforts to save the vaquita.
    Saving the vaquita in the face of demand for totoaba swim bladders, a very expensive traditional Chinese delicacy, is a particular challenge. Dealers pay thousands of dollars per kilogram along the isolated beaches of the Upper Gulf for the bladders, which are then smuggled through the U.S. border and shipped to feed China's insatiable appetite for this "exotic" food.

    How Mexico must step up

    However, it is still up to Mexico to stop this illegal fishery within its own territory in order to save this most endangered marine mammal species.
    And it is Mexico -- and its unique marine environment -- that will bear the most devastating consequences of the vaquita's extinction. The attention this porpoise has received has turned it into a "guardian" of sorts for the environmental health of the upper Gulf; much of the attention and support it has received benefit other endangered species indirectly. Once the vaquita is gone, environmental protections would likely evaporate with it; the remaining marine life -- including totoaba, shrimp, corvina, sharks, and sea turtles -- will follow the same tragic path.
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    In the end, local fishermen and their families will find themselves in an even more desperate situation. Today, essentially all fisheries in this isolated region are overexploited and sustainable economic alternatives have not yet been developed. This is particularly dramatic for El Golfo de Santa Clara, one of the two towns whose 4,000 inhabitants depend almost entirely on fishing and, to some extent, on incipient tourism. If the ecosystem falls apart here, the cost will be much more than environmental.
    Let´s be clear. At this point, the vaquita can only be saved if the Mexican government immediately and indefinitely bans all fishing within its habitat. Anything else is just wishful thinking.
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    Fishermen affected by any closure must be compensated accordingly and efforts to scale up the use of existing vaquita-safe fishing gear and development of better fishing methods must continue in order to ensure they and their families can have a more sustainable way of life. Once the vaquita is shown to be on a path to recovery, and sustainable vaquita-safe fishing methods can be fully adopted and enforced, fisheries should be reopened -- to vaquita-safe gear only.
    Despite all efforts and millions spent, in a few months the "little cow" that for thousands of years thrived in this remote area will be gone forever unless urgent action is taken. President Peña Nieto, time is up for the vaquita. Its survival is up to you.