Safety Net

Corey Arnold
Corey Arnold
Corey Arnold
Corey Arnold
Corey Arnold
Corey Arnold
National Geographic Stock

Safety Net

There are only 245 vaquita left in the wild. To save the rare porpoises, the Mexican government has launched an innovative project that pays fishermen to hang up their nets.

By Catherine Elton/Photography by Corey Arnold
Published: November-December 2011

The day Juan Ocegueda first saw a vaquita began like all the other days since he turned 11 and started fishing with his father. They sped out to sea, their fishing net balled up like a giant hairball at the bottom of their wooden boat, until the barren desert coast behind them looked like a mere sandbar jutting out of the ocean. They tossed one end of the net into the water and slowly unraveled it. Its weights clonked along the back of the boat before skipping into the water and sinking slowly out of sight. Hours later they hauled up the net, full of flapping silver fish, their scales reflecting sunlight, their mouths gasping for air.

But that day in 1978, when he was 18 years old, Ocegueda found something in his net that he'd never seen before. It was smooth and wet. Stiff and still. "It looked like a dolphin, but it was smaller," he recalls. "I wasn't sure what it was." He untangled it from the net and tossed it back into the sea.

More than a decade passed before Ocegueda learned that he had seen a vaquita that day. In 1991, he says, a visiting environmentalist explained to him and other fishermen that this section of the upper portion of the Gulf of California is the only place in the world where this little porpoise lives. He also said their gill nets were killing it faster than it could reproduce.

Over the next two decades, the vaquita went from being a rarely seen species of no importance to upper gulf fishermen to a defining factor in their lives. In the early years the vaquita represented a threat to the only way of life they had ever known, and for many fishermen, that is still the case today. But for others the vaquita has come to represent something else entirely: an opportunity. As part of an ambitious and innovative $30 million program, the Mexican government has offered fishermen from three communities on the upper Gulf of California--who catch mostly shrimp and corvina, a popular fish--cash for helping to protect the porpoise. Fishermen can leave the industry altogether and receive a payment to start a new business. For a smaller sum, they can trade their gill nets for vaquita-safe gear. As a third option, they can commit to honor a recently created no-fishing zone. So far the program has resulted in pulling gill nets out of the water and reducing the overall small fishing fleet by 25 percent, to approximately 750 boats.

 "We aren't where we need to be to declare a victory, but we are closer than we have ever been," says Lorenzo Rojas, a biologist who heads the vaquita program for the Mexican government's National Institute for Ecology. But still, while these unprecedented efforts have slowed the decline of the vaquita, its numbers continue to fall, and if fishing continues as it occurs today, Rojas says, the program has only an eight percent chance of saving the species in the next decade. The only thing that might guarantee the species' survival is for the program to get all the nets out of the water--and soon. This is the vaquita's best, last chance.

 

The vaquita became the world's most endangered cetacean in 2006, when scientists declared the Yangtze River dolphin extinct. At just 1,500 square miles, the vaquita's range is the most restricted of any cetacean in the world. It encompasses the northern reaches of the Gulf of California, a sliver of sea between the peninsula of Baja California and mainland Mexico. The vaquita doesn't appear to reproduce annually, so its population grows more slowly than some other porpoises. Like all porpoises, however, it's prone to getting tangled in gill nets and drowning. Its habitat lies in some of the richest fishing grounds of all of Mexico, where gill nets reign supreme. The vast desert surrounding the area offers few opportunities for employment on land other than tourism.

No more than five feet long, the vaquita is also the world's smallest cetacean, and perhaps the most mysterious. It travels in small groups, is wary of boats, and when it surfaces it does so partially and rapidly, without the showy display common for dolphins (which is one reason it's next to impossible to find a photo of a live vaquita). Sadly, most people who have ever seen this rare and elusive porpoise have seen only a dead one. Up close, its most distinguishing characteristics are the dark circles around its eyes and the dark patch around its lips, which casts the appearance of a faint and eternal smile.

Scientists don't know how many vaquita lived in the upper gulf before the advent of gill nets because it wasn't discovered as a new species until 1958. By then these waters had experienced a voracious totoaba gill-netting boom (and subsequent bust) that left that species teetering on the verge of extinction.

Although in 1997 there were an estimated 567 vaquitas--more than twice as many as today--Rojas wouldn't want to go back to the way things were a decade ago. "Ten years ago many government authorities denied the vaquita existed," Rojas says. "Many fishermen said it didn't exist. Or they'd say if there were any, they were dying because of the lack of water flowing from the Colorado River [because of Hoover Dam]. Or they'd say it was because of pollution. Now the government has invested tens of millions to get gill nets out of the water. The change has been staggering."

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The rights, well being, life

The rights, well being, life and liberty of an individual outweighs the importance of the entire vaquita population. The interests of the local fishermen in El Golfo must be the principle priority. Until human interest are considered first, the position of those trying to save the vaquita will be diminished and their goals unachievable.

Mexican goverment and it

Mexican goverment and it President are really inepts, corrupts and lyings. Realy, we need to work in solitary. The vaquita need our help NOW.

The mexican goverment by its

The mexican goverment by its situacion well know, is unable to save the vaquita. I suggest about some specimenes are captured alive and try their reproduction in captivity in U.S. For its small siza it seems not too difficult. I suggest to promote, in addition, a total ban of U.S. authorities totoaba the sale of its territory especially in California and Arizona. Finally it should be banned altogheter, for an indefinity period by bilateral agreement, the export of totoaba fishing by Mexican or American companies. From this, scientists and technicians of both countries may settle more quietly, thoroughty and forever, this headache anxiety greatly to the abiding nature of the world.

The mexican goverment by its

The mexican goverment by its situacion well know, is unable to save the vaquita. I suggest about some specimenes are captured alive and try their reproduction in captivity in U.S. For its small siza it seems not too difficult. I suggest to promote, in addition, a total ban of U.S. authorities totoaba the sale of its territory especially in California and Arizona. Finally it should be banned altogheter, for an indefinity period by bilateral agreement, the export of totoaba fishing by Mexican or American companies. From this, scientists and technicians of both countries may settle more quietly, thoroughty and forever, this headache anxiety greatly to the abiding nature of the world.

Still an unlikely wager

I kayak in the golfo de santa clara/Boca de Colorado region, and many fishermen there believe that the vaquita, in their own words "es una mentira"..."is a lie". They do not believe the animal exists. And, contrary to the optimistic statements in this article, these guys are indeed still using gill nets out by Isla Montague. A number of the fishermen who were "bought out" up in Golfo de Santa Clara were rumoured to have gone and bought new boats and motors with their buyout checks. A dozen truckloads of fish leave Puerto Penasco every day, headed north to be processed. One must understand that Mexico does not work the way we wish it did. If this animal is to be saved, there must be well enforced criminal penalties for fishing in the entire home range region of this little dolphin. Anything less will be ignored by the locals.

unprecedented efforts

WoW! What a great effort being offered by the Mexican President and made by the Fisherman. It's so nice to see that a governmental agency is making and unprecedented effort to save the lives of an endangered cetacean! If only Japan and the Taiji Fisherman could follow in the same footsteps!

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