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At most, only 22 vaquita porpoises remain off Baja

'If we stop operations, the vaquita will go extinct,' says rescue ship's 1st mate

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Mexico City — No more than 22 vaquitas may remain in the Gulf of California, where fishermen do battle with defenders of the world’s smallest and most endangered porpoise species.

That was Wednesday’s message from Jorge Urban, a biology professor at the Baja California Sur University. He said the 22 vaquitas were heard over a network of acoustic monitors at the end of summer.

But as fishing season approaches its May peak, ecologists are worried.

The Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez, is the only place in the world where the vaquita marina is found.

Every night, 22 volunteer crew members from ships operated by the environmentalist group Sea Shepherd go out to search the upper Gulf for hidden nets that catch prized totoaba fish and ensnare and kill vaquitas.

The Sea Shepherd ship Farley Mowat has suffered two recent attacks in which dozens of fast fishing boats pounded the ship with rocks and firebombs.

“If we stop operations, the vaquita will go extinct,” said Sea Shepherd first mate Jack Hutton. “It’s just out here removing nets, if we stop removing them then there’s no hope for the vaquita.”

The prime season to catch totoaba, which peaks in May, is causing a frenzy, the Associated Press reports.

The big fish’s swim bladders are considered a delicacy in China and can bring thousands of dollars apiece at retail. Fishermen are often armed as they attempt to continue illegal expeditions.

“We know we are going to keep getting attacked,” said Hutton, who was operating a drone that fishermen shot out of the sky last year. “We know we are risking our lives, but if we don’t the vaquita has no chance.”

The activists are not alone. Mexican Marines and federal police aboard the Farley Mowat fired rubber bullets during the most recent attacks. But officials are clearly not capable of handling the attacks, or preventing fishermen from setting the submerged, hidden nets, which are banned by law from the area. The Mexican Navy and Environment Ministry did not reply to the Associated Press reporter’s request for comments.

The Marines have been intimidated by the fishermen, said documentary filmmaker Richard Ladkani, who directed “Sea of Shadows,” a Sundance film festival winner.

Ladkani said he accompanied the Navy on wild, dangerous nighttime chases at top speed in which fishermen tried — and sometimes succeeded — in ramming naval patrol boats. “Why is the Navy not using force?” Ladkani wondered. “We were on 10 chases, and every time the pangas (boats) got away.”

Ladkani also has a theory about why the fishermen are getting so violent and desperate: Sea Shepherd is successful enough at pulling out nets — which cost about US$3,000 apiece — that the fishermen are going into debt, borrowing money from the cartel of Chinese and Mexican totoaba traffickers to buy new nets.

“This is a vicious circle where people get more indebted,” said Ladkani. “This one fisherman wound up owing the cartels US$54,000 for 18 nets. He tried to get out, he finally came out and said there is no way I can repay the cartel. He was murdered.”

Sunshine Rodriguez, a leader of the fishermen in the Baja California town of San Felipe, agreed that the illegal totoaba trade has not brought riches to the town: A total ban on gillnets has paralyzed the fishing fleet, and government payments meant to compensate for lost fishing income haven’t been paid in at least three months.

“I know people who are dedicated 100 percent to that (totoaba) business, and don’t even have $10 to put gas in the tank of their panga,” said Rodriguez. “The Chinese are making the profit, that I can tell you.”

“What did they expect the people to do, starve?” Rodriguez asked, saying the idea that fishermen make thousands of dollars for each totoaba bladder is a myth. He said a half-kilogram bladder from an average-sized fish commands only about $400, and prices are dropping.

Rodriguez said the Chinese-Mexican illegal dealers keep cutting the price because the fishermen “are starving. … They say ‘we’ll keep on dropping it, we’ll keep on making more profit, and these people are going to keep fishing because they have nothing else to do.”

Investigator Andrea Crosta of the group Elephant Action League agreed that prices appear to be falling, calling that “the first good news for the vaquita in a long, long time.” He attributed that to his group’s work in identifying illegal traders in Baja California’s Chinese community, noting that the Chinese government recently arrested 16 traders.

Crosta, who spent a year and a half working undercover to expose the totoaba trade, agreed with Rodriguez on another point: The Mexican government’s strategy of focusing almost exclusively on cracking down on the fishermen is never going to work unless it also cracks down on the middlemen and the traders.

“As long as you hammer, put all your efforts only on the fishermen, only on removing the nets, you will fail,” Crosta said. “You don’t address the problem, and the problem is a very sophisticated supply chain. As long as you don’t hit these people and you do that … you’ll bleed out, not only the vaquita but the whole marine life in the Sea of Cortez.”

Rodriguez, the fishermen’s leader, puts it this way: “Everybody is illegal out there. Regardless if it’s a shrimp net or a totoaba net, there is a ban on nets.

“So if you’re going to catch me and take my boat away for using a shrimp net, what do you think I’m going to do instead? I’m going to do the most profitable illegal thing because I’m still illegal.”

But in the meantime, the Sea Shepherd goes each night and hauls in nets, sometimes as many as 15 per night. The fishermen go out each night and lay nets because many of them can’t stop; they’re too in debt to the traders.

The Sea of Cortez, which Jacques Cousteau once called “the aquarium of the world,” is suffering long-term damage from the nets, which are carefully weighted to float below the surface to avoid detection.

“The fact that they hide their nets does mean that we find active nets months later that have not been checked or forgotten about or lost by the poachers,” said Hutton. “It means that there’s walls of death that are just going to sit out there forever if no one picks them up.”

“When it’s totoaba season at the end of May, they may have killed everything by then,” Ladkani said.

Source: Associated Press

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Andrea Crosta’s name.

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