For the first time in four years, fishermen are back on the water in the Upper Gulf of California fishing inside the vaquita marina sanctuary, the only place in the world where the smallest marine mammal can be found.
In 2015, the Mexican government prohibited commercial fishing in what is also known as Sea of Cortez. On March 21, the government announced that it will place buoys to set boundaries around the reserve, where it is believed fewer than 10 vaquitas remain.
The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources promised to provide social programs and jobs for fishing communities, but during an assembly, fishermen refused the initiative, arguing that it does not give an immediate solution for their people who are facing hunger.
The Drug of the Sea
While sharks have been determined to be the only natural predators of vaquitas, humans have proven otherwise. Measuring less than five feet long, hundreds of vaquitas have met their deaths drowning after becoming entangled in illegal fishermen’s nets.
The illicit practice of illegal fishing for totoaba, an endangered fish, is expediting the extinction of the vaquita. Totoaba fish measure up to seven feet and catching them can turn into a lucrative business as their bladder is sold for thousands of dollars and smuggled to China and Hong Kong, as it is believed to have medicinal properties. Poachers are pushing two species toward extinction, leaving local fishermen without their life-sustaining resource.
In an effort to stop black market poaching, the Mexican government outlawed all gillnets in the vaquita refuge. In return, it promised compensation for fishermen being put out of work.
"There’s no money and people are looking for ways to survive," fisherman Jesus Montezuma said. "Fishermen are opting for fishing the totoaba, while there’s no compensation; people are risking everything because they have to put food on the table."
Montezuma said it has been three months since he last received compensation.
Cosme Gastellu has lived in San Felipe, a small town on the Sea of Cortez, for almost 35 years. He, like many locals, believes the vaquita is just a myth.
"There’s no vaquita here, I haven’t seen one," Gastelum said. "I’ve seen people fish for totoaba, they come on their bike, then they buy a new car. A kilo of totoaba’s bladder can be sold here from $4,000 to $7,000 dollars," Gastelum said.
New Government, No Funds
The federal government has suspended the economic support granted to fishermen since 2015. Under the government of Andres Manuel Lópes Obrador, the new Comprehensive Program for Fisheries Sustainability in the Upper Gulf of California has no funds for 2019, leaving fishermen like Montezuma without a monthly compensation.
Alejandro Mesa Ramos, 27, started fishing with his dad since he was 12 years old, he too has not received economic support since December 2018.
"Yesterday, we tried to fish for shrimp along the edge of the sea, because we want to bring something to eat,” Ramos said. “I have three children and I have to take them to school and feed them."
He said the monthly compensation he received was about $445 dollars a month, just enough to cover the essentials. He is owed more than $1300 dollars.
Livelihoods or Death
"One can’t go fishing, [the government] doesn’t let us go out and work," Montezuma said. "In fact, there are people that go fishing in the middle of the night just to be able to support their families."
He said three people have been killed as they tried to fish at night without lights so they are not caught and their boat crashed into each other.
"They can look for a way to take care of it [the vaquita], and we will support them as fishermen if it even exists," he said. "But, they need to look at us as well, not just the vaquita. Sea Shepherd is helping to conserve it, but what about the humans?"
Sea Shepherd, the organization Montezuma was referring to, is an international non-profit, marine wildlife conservation organization that patrols and protects the vaquita refuge.
Operation Milagro V
Fighting to save the world’s most endangered marine mammal from extinction, Jean Paul Geoffroy, head of Sea Shepherd’s Operation Milagro V, is determined to help save the vaquita porpoise.
"We, [Sea Shepherd], do support the fishermen to return to their work, return to the sea, but as long as they follow the law and the rules to make a truly sustainable fishing," he said.
Geoffroy wears a black Sea Shepherd hoodie, but he only does so outside of San Felipe, because of previous threats he has received from the community.
Sea Shepherd Ship Attacked by Poachers
On Jan. 31, one of the Sea Shepherd vessels was violently attacked by more than 50 assailants posing as fishermen on board 20 high-speed boats while conducting maritime conservation patrols inside the vaquita refuge. Bottles filled with flammable liquid and with a means of ignition and projectiles, including lead weights and large stones, were hurled by poachers, shattering windows and setting the side of the Sea Shepherd ship on fire.
Crewmembers fended the attackers off using emergency fire hoses while Mexican Navy soldiers and Federal Police stationed on board opened fire into the air and sea to deter the attackers. This was the second attack in less than a month, according to Sea Shepherd’s news release.
Nets Bigger than a Football Field
Sea Shepherd focuses on the retrieval of gillnets located inside the vaquita refuge. In the middle of the night, while illegal fishermen and poachers enter the refuge to leave their nets, the location is recorded by Sea Shepherd’s crewmembers using radar. At sunrise, the gillnets are extracted and destroyed.
"We have retrieved gillnets that have up to 62 totoabas, in just one net. Just a few days ago we had a net with two totoabas," Geoffroy said.
The nets retrieved have been up to 400 meters long. That’s three and a half times the size of a football field. According to Geoffroy, most of the nets retrieved are about 250 meters long. Losing a net can be costly as they range between $1,000 to $4,000 dollars.
"We are not taking anybody’s job," Geoffroy said. "We are simply here to support what the government has stipulated. If that changes, that will be the government's decision. We [Sea Shepherd], are not the ones who decide where the refuge is, that’s decided by the Mexican government."
Disposal of Totoaba Fish
"We retrieve gillnets that have totoaba," said Locky Maclean, Sea Shepherd’s director of Marine Operation. "Live totoabas are released and the ones that are already deceased are put on deck. We have a strict protocol with photographic evidence, a cutting protocol basically destroying the bladder."
He said there are federal agents from the Mexican government on board Sea Shepherd’s vessels at all times. The destruction protocol was put in place by the Federal Attorney’s Office for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA).
Extinction of the Vaquita
On March 6, an international commission of experts said only six to 22 vaquitas remain in the Gulf of California. Jorge Urban, a biology professor at the Baja California Sur University, said about 22 vaquitas were heard over a network of acoustic monitors.
This number is higher than previous estimates, however, on March 13, Sea Shepherd announced a dead vaquita was found caught in a gillnet. The cetacean was retrieved in an advanced state of decomposition that a genetic analysis had to be done to confirm the identity of species.
The commission noted that it is most likely that the number of surviving vaquitas is around 10. The future of the vaquita is uncertain as local fishermen are back fishing inside the vaquita refuge in hopes the Mexican government presents a comprehensive solution that allows them to fish legally while protecting the vaquita.
As for Sea Shepherd, Geoffroy said the team is retrieving nets as usual in order to preserve the vaquita, which was first discovered by science in 1958.