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US advocates rally to save Mexico’s vaquita

Last updated on March 6, 2018

Local conservation and animal protection organizations rallied outside the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C. Thursday to call on the Mexican government to take drastic action to save the fewer than 30 vaquita porpoises left on the planet. Advocates demanded that the Mexican government rigorously enforce laws to protect the rapidly disappearing species.

For decades, vaquita in the Upper Gulf of California have been killed by entanglement in gillnet fishing gear set to catch shrimp and other species. Over the past five years, this tiny porpoise’s population has plummeted by 90 percent because of increased use of illegal gillnets to capture endangered totoaba, a large fish whose swim bladder is in high demand in Asia.

Last Friday, Mexico published a long-awaited rule permanently banning the use of most gillnets in vaquita habitat in the Upper Gulf of California. While a welcome first step, advocates stress that the regulation still falls short of what is needed to save the vaquita.

Fisheries that use gillnets to encircle corvina and mackerel are exempt from the new ban. The ban also fails to prohibit the sale and manufacture of gillnets in the region. Further, similar bans announced by the Mexican government in the past have proven ineffective due to inadequate enforcement.

“With fewer than 30 vaquita remaining, the recently announced permanent ban is a welcome development,” said Susan Millward, director of marine programs at the Animal Welfare Institute.

“However, the new ban is not complete and ongoing failures by Mexico to fully enforce its laws will continue to push the vaquita toward extinction.”

Participants of the rally—held in conjunction with the July 8 International Save the Vaquita Day 2017—held signs, wore “Save the Vaquita!” t-shirts, and handed out information to the public about the plight of the species. A mobile billboard—displaying a vaquita entangled in a gillnet—also circled the perimeter of the Mexican Embassy during the event.

“Mexico must finally get serious about enforcement or the vaquita will disappear forever,” said Stephanie Kurose, endangered species policy specialist with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Gillnets are extinguishing these amazing little porpoises, and Mexican officials are just standing by and watching the extinction. The vaquita’s only chance is a strong, permanent ban on these lethal nets, with real enforcement.”

Illegal fishing remains widespread throughout vaquita habitat. In early June, after a fact-finding mission determined that the vaquita is at risk of imminent extinction, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the UNESCO World Heritage Centre (WHC) recommended an “in danger” status for the Islands and Protected Areas of the Upper Gulf of California, a World Heritage site designated, in part, to save the vaquita.

Despite this recommendation, the WHC committee yesterday opted to give Mexico one year to improve protections to avoid the “in danger” designation. Mexican officials attending the WHC meeting were able to temporarily derail the designation by falsely claiming that its actions to date are enough to save the species. The committee vowed to closely monitor Mexico’s efforts to protect the site and the vaquita.

“Mexico has gotten very good at making commitments for vaquita,” said Zak Smith, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Marine Mammal Protection Project. “But until Mexico achieves the one necessary change for vaquita survival—a gillnet-free habitat—they are managing the vaquita’s extinction, not its salvation.”

“The responsibility for the current status of the vaquita does not fall completely on the Mexican government. The US and Chinese governments should be providing as much support as possible to assist Mexico,” said Desray Reeb, marine mammal biologist, Ph.D. “Right now, though, only the Mexican government has the power to truly save the vaquita.

Directed enforcement of a permanent ban on gillnets will not only save them for now, it will secure their habitat and survival for tomorrow. We’ve known about this for more than a decade—there is no more time left. Action is required. I hope the Mexican government can stand tall and be an example to the world.”

Earlier this year, advocates launched a boycott of all shrimp caught in Mexico, in an effort to put financial pressure on the powerful Mexican shrimp industry. The ongoing campaign asks consumers to avoid purchasing shrimp supplied from Mexico at supermarkets, restaurants and other retailers, and, through their purchasing decisions, compel the shrimp industry to convince the Mexican government to remove deadly gillnets from vaquita habit and take steps to recover the species. The “Boycott Mexican Shrimp” tagline appeared throughout the event, including on the rally t-shirts and the mobile billboard.

“The extinction of the vaquita, just a dozen or so years after the extinction of the baiji (also known as the Yangtze River dolphin), would be a catastrophe,” said Thomas A. Jefferson, director of VIVA Vaquita. “It would be a terrible precedent in marine mammal conservation, as both of these species were or are savable, but suffered from a lack of political will by the governments involved. It’s too late for the baiji, but it’s not too late for the vaquita. A strong, concerted effort can still save the species, so let’s all work together to make that happen.”

Article by Amey Owen,  Instituto de Bienestar Animal