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.
One of the program's main criticisms is its presumption that a check can turn fishermen, many of whom have only a few years of schooling, into businessmen overnight. It's an assumption, some say, that dooms many of them to failure and increases the likelihood that they'll return to fishing, illegally. Indeed, to date, the government has not given any of the fishermen business training, although a nonprofit did offer some limited training. Still, things are beginning to look up. The government plans to offer training to those who have gone into the tourism industry, and the nonprofit Mexican Fund for the Conservation of Nature may launch a program to provide training and support to fishermen who have taken buyouts.
But perhaps the biggest criticism of the program comes from the many fishermen and some observers who say the government isn't doing enough to patrol the waters and prevent those who lack permits from fishing, including, they say, some fishermen who took buyouts. "Historically, we have never been able to control illegal fishing," says Alejandro Robles, an environmentalist who has been involved with vaquita conservation since the 1980s. "It's difficult to put in place such a sophisticated project if you cannot control illegal fishing." The governmental offices of Conapesca, which distributes and enforces permits, and Profepa, which patrols the protected area, say they have confiscated boats, nets, and fish. But it's a vast sea, and Profepa's nine boats and plane can't be everywhere at once. Last year the Mexican Fund for the Conservation of Nature began its own monthly flyovers of the protected area from October to July and has detected many boats fishing inside the Vaquita Refuge.
During last year's fishing season, biologist Rojas says there were three vaquitas reported killed in gill nets. Still, Rojas remains optimistic that the species can be saved. "If I weren't, I'd be doing something else," he says. "But to do it we have to reduce the vaquita bycatch to zero." The only way to do that would be to eliminate gill nets altogether. If that were to happen, Rojas says, the eight percent chance of vaquita survival in the next decade if the status quo remains would jump to 99 percent. In his opinion, the government has already invested so much taxpayer money to save the vaquita that it makes sense to go all the way.
But to ban gill nets altogether would be a surefire act of political suicide in a country like Mexico. Unless, of course, there was an effective alternative net. While there is some alternative gear being used to catch commercial species as a result of the program, there is nothing, to date, that catches the valuable blue shrimp as effectively as the gill net. For two years the government compensated a group of fishermen who use a prototype of an ecofriendly trawling net in controlled tests. (Vaquita tend to stay away from trawling nets because they are dragged behind a noisy motorboat.)
Last year, in a sweltering, hangarlike building in the center of the village of Santa Clara, government officials presented the vaquita program opportunities to a group of nearly 100 fishermen. As audience members fanned themselves with handouts, the director of the Biosphere Reserve, Jose Campoy, explained that the compensation for abiding the Vaquita Refuge regulation had gone up, from $3,750 to $5,000. The increase came in exchange for the addition of three temporary no-fishing zones during the shrimp season in order to carry out tests with the experimental net.
When Campoy projected a map of these areas onto the white wall of the building, a handful of fishermen went wild, screaming at Campoy and cursing the program. They said they've had enough of no-fishing zones. But observers say they're also angry because they know the vaquita-safe nets require more skill, time, and effort to use and are not as easy to use illegally as the gill nets. (Some fishermen use extra-long gill nets, or line multiple nets up together forming a vast and illegal barrier.) They also know that if the net proves to be a viable--if slightly less effective--alternative, the government might ban gill nets altogether. (Whether the government would be able to enforce a gill-net ban is another story. Some experts doubt it has the manpower to enforce it.)
For a second year in a row, however, the experimental net didn't seem to work for blue shrimp, only for the less valuable brown shrimp. The net may have failed because the tests lacked a sound methodology, as Rojas says, or because the net itself doesn't work, or both. Still, environmentalists hope the government will look to other net designs for a desperately need alternative for blue shrimp.
Despite the program's shortcomings and the hurdles it still faces with regard to the alternative gear, some say that along the way to trying to save an endangered species, the program could potentially achieve much more. "The vaquita is a fisheries issue more than anything else," says Richard Cudney, a marine scientist who directs the California-based Packard Foundation's Gulf of California program. "In solving the issue of the vaquita, you also improve fishing in the upper gulf." Historically, one fish species after another has been overfished. "The vaquita program has already triggered some important changes. We have fewer boats on the water, and there is more coordination between fisheries and environmental agencies than there has ever been before. The vaquita has been a real wakeup call."
Former fisherman Mora sees it this way, too. "This isn't just about the vaquita, it's about shrimp and corvina. If we take care of the vaquita, we take care of the sea, too," he says. "Our kids are coming up behind us. What are we going to leave them with, a sea with nothing left in it?"