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Last vaquitas could suffer for fisherman’s fatal clash with environmentalists

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Dozens of totoaba fish lay inside small fishing boats in the Gulf of California, near San Felipe, Mexico. Photo: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

Mexico is considering reducing the protected area for endangered vaquita porpoises after a fisherman’s death led to accusations that the government cares more about marine animals than its own citizens.

An estimated 10 vaquitas are left in the world, residing in the northern Gulf of California or Sea or Cortez.

The government’s most recent analysis acknowledges that the tiny porpoise species can never return to its original range of habitat.

For years, a battle has raged between environmental groups and San Felipe fishermen seeking a big payday off the valuable totoaba fish. Vaquitas are endangered when they get caught in fishing nets cast to catch totoaba.

Earlier: Lawsuit seeks trade sanctions to protect endangered vaquita

Mexican federal officials met Friday to consider recommending opening the Gulf of California to legal fishing of the totoaba, which is also endangered but can fetch thousands of dollars in China, where the animal’s dried swim bladder is considered a delicacy.

“This agenda is focused on maintaining the status quo and abandoning the vaquita marina and returning to fishing for totoaba,” said Alex Olivera, the Mexico representative for the Center for Biological Diversity. “It is disappointing that this administration has ruined everything that had been done.”

A fisherman hauls up a critically endangered vaquita porpoise accidentally entangled in his net in 2008. Entanglement in fishing gear threatens the species with extinction. Photo: Omar Vidal via Mongabay

The head of Mexico’s environmental ministry said once the protected area for the vaquita is reduced, the agency would consider lifting the ban on gillnets in some of the waters shared by vaquitas and totoabas.

“The possibility of modifying the area of the prohibition of all gillnets is being studied,” said María Luisa Albores González, the head of Semarnat, the agency in charge of Mexico’s natural resources. “There are sufficient technical studies that point to a possible reduction of the protected area according to the recent distribution of the vaquita porpoise in the area.”

In January, Mario García Toledo, 56, died and another Mexican fisherman was badly injured off the Baja California coast when the fishermen’s small outboard motorboat collided with an environmental group’s larger vessel. The crash galvanized fishermen trying to make a living while finding themselves at odds with the Sea Shepherd group, who called them poachers. Now the Sea Shepherd is facing a wrongful death suit, accused of ramming the smaller vessel.

“They’ve been getting away with this criminal activity for years,” said Jesus Cruz, the attorney for the fisherman’s family.

An interagency task force is examining several different proposed policy changes, and the group’s recommendations may be made public March 26, after which President Andrés Manuel López Obrador can weigh its merits.

Source: San Diego Union-Tribune

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