MEXICO CITY (AP) — Scientists estimate that only about eight of the world’s most endangered porpoises remain in the Gulf of California, the only place where the vaquita marina lives, an environmental group said Tuesday.
Pritam Singh, Sea Shepherd group chairman, said his crews hadn’t seen any of the elusive porpoises during around three dozen trips this year to what is thought to be the last area of the gulf where vaquitas live. .
But he said scientists from the International Union for Conservation of Nature have reviewed images taken late last year which suggest eight adults and possibly a calf or two are still in the gulf. , also known as the Sea of Cortez.
Vaquitas are drowning in illegal nets set by fishermen to catch totoaba, a fish whose swim bladder is a delicacy in China and sells for thousands of dollars per pound (kilogram).
The Mexican government has been criticized for partially abandoning efforts to impose a zero fishing zone in the last known area of the gulf where the vaquitas live. But Singh said while there were a lot of small fishing boats in the zero fishing zone earlier this year, coordination between Sea Shepherd and the Mexican Navy helped reduce the number of vessels.
Singh said the first three days Sea Shepherd patrolled the area this year, they saw 58 fishing boats on the first day, 35 on the second and 27 on the third. On their last trip, those numbers had dropped to between one and three boats a day, he said.
“This is great news,” Singh said. “It helps give the vaquita a chance.”
Last year, the Mexican government abandoned the policy of maintaining a “zero tolerance” zone in the upper Gulf. It then introduced a sliding scale of penalties if more than 60 fishing boats are seen in the area on multiple occasions.
For years, Mexico has relied on Sea Shepherd boats to remove most of the illegal nets that trap and drown vaquitas, while doing relatively little to combat violent poachers’ attacks on conservationists’ vessels. The group estimates that it has removed around 1,000 long, heavy nets over the past six years.
But conservationists were forced out of the Gulf in January 2021 after a New Year’s Eve attack in which fishermen rammed a Sea Shepherd vessel with their boat. One of the fishermen is said to have died later from injuries sustained in this attack.
Since then, the task of locating and removing the nets has largely been left to the Mexican Navy, acting on reports from Sea Shepherd ships. Mexican authorities allowed the group to return to the Gulf about a year after being expelled, but that no longer allows the group to remove the illegal nets.
In February, the Office of the US Trade Representative filed the first trade-based environmental complaint against Mexico for failing to protect the vaquita marina, which is the world’s smallest porpoise.
The office said it had requested “environmental consultations” with Mexico, the first such case it has filed under the United States-Mexico-Canada free trade pact. The consultations are the first step in the dispute resolution process under the treaty, which entered into force in 2020. If left unresolved, it could eventually lead to trade sanctions.
Mexico’s economy ministry said after the lawsuit was announced on Thursday that “the Mexican government reaffirms its commitment to the proper implementation of the USMCA and the responsibilities it has within it.”
President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has expressed his aversion to foreign interference and his desire to balance the interests of fishermen and endangered species.
“We don’t need foreigners telling us what to do or imposing sanctions on fishermen in our country,” López Obrador said in 2021. He insisted that “we can reach an agreement that seeks a balance between fishing and productive activities, and who takes care of the species.”