THE VAQUITA CONTROVERSY
The Upper Gulf of California-Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve in Mexico is the site of one of the most intensive single-species conservation efforts in the global South. In 2008, the Mexican government with the support US foundations and several international conservation groups, started the PACE-Vaquita program to prevent the extinction of the elusive porpoise known as the “vaquita marina” (Phocoena sinus). The program involves the application of economic instruments on a large scale, ranging from the permanent buyout of fishing permits and the shifting to “green” activities like eco-tourism; the prohibition of the highly efficient and selective shrimp gill net; the outright ban of all fishing activities in exchange for financial compensation to local small-scale fishers; and greatly increased surveillance and military enforcement.
The Upper Gulf has historically been a highly productive marine region and fishing the most important source of livelihood for indigenous and mestizo populations. Dependence on coastal fishing over several generations translates into a livelihood tradition that has resulted in the development of very detailed, empirically-based knowledge about the behavior and lifecycle of a variety of commercial and non-commercial species, local environmental conditions and ecological relations that has been passed on from one generation to the other.
In the Upper Gulf, small-scale fishing is the primary source of livelihood for about 10,000 families in the communities of Santa Clara, San Felipe, and Puerto Peñasco. This number includes fishers as well as those who make a living from related activities, such as fish processing and marketing. Despite lack of water from the Colorado River, there are still highly productive nursery grounds for a variety of commercial species, including shrimp, seabass, bigeye croaker, and mackerel. Small boats (pangas), powered by outboard motors, and monofilament nylon gillnets (chinchorros de línea), constitute the main fishing gear. Gillnets are set on the water like a curtain and are tended by fishers who wait for specific movements that indicate that the targeted species has been caught. Because the size, thickness and mesh size of gillnets vary according to the which species is being sought, they are considered to be highly efficient, which means that there is very little bycatch, and small specimens of the targeted species are usually able to escape the large mesh size.
IMPOUNDMENT OF THE COLORADO RIVER
The Colorado river is one of the most diverted, silted, and heavily litigated rivers in the world. For centuries its waters flowed from the Central Rocky Mountains of Colorado to the Colorado River Delta and into the Upper Gulf of California. Today the delta has shrunk to less than 10% of its former area, and more than 99% of the water that originally reached it has been diverted to support agriculture and cities in the U.S. and Mexico.
High demand of the river’s water for urban and agricultural uses permanently altered the river's ecology. While the “law of the river” gives equal priority to agricultural and domestic water use, “water for nature” has not been historically recognized. This means that there is no designated water flow for the delta ecosystem which contains important riparian areas for migratory birds, or the estuaries and lagoons in the upper Gulf of California that provide nursery grounds for marine commercial fisheries and endangered species alike. The vulnerability of the region’s ecosystems and human livelihoods has been exacerbated by climate change, including long-term drought and rising temperatures.
Lack of freshwater inflows into the Upper Gulf of California means that formerly brackish estuarine lagoons in the delta are now hyper-saline, with adverse impacts on marine life. Although the impacts of these changes are not well understood, several ecologists argue that it has been a key cause of biodiversity loss in the Upper Gulf, posing a much greater risk to the survival of the vaquita than incidental mortality from artisanal fishing activities.
SINGLE SPECIES CONSERVATION
Rather than looking at the preservation of ecosystems on a broad scale, single species approaches to conservation management focus on saving individual charismatic species located within highly fluid, dynamic and multiple-use natural contexts. The vaquita, whose population went from an estimated 30 individuals in 2017 tot less than 15 in 2019, according to The Marine Mammal Center, is considered the world’s most endangered small cetacean and thought to inhabit a small wedge of ocean habitat 2,200 square km in size at the upper Gulf of California where the Colorado River drains into the sea. Its population is believed to have historically occurred at low densities (probably under 5,000) and what is known of its autecology suggests that it is a classic extinction-prone species with a low reproductive rate.
Unlike a more ecosystem approach to biodiversity conservation, the objective of this single species management program for the vaquita stems from a crisis sensation due to fears of imminent extinction--particularly following the declared extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin. The species’ characteristics (extinction-prone, tiny geographic distribution, occurring at low densities) in combination with significant environmental changes and socioeconomic conditions of the region means that it is likely to remain endangered for the long-term.
Single-species approach to conservation has drawn criticism even among conservationists who argue that this view is far too narrow. For conservation to succeed, some environmentalists argue, it must work on a larger scale, focusing not on preserving single species in small islands of wilderness but on large landscapes and entire ecosystems, as well as on the benefits that nature provides to humans.
SOCIAL IMPACTS OF THE FISHING BAN:
The most radical effort at vaquita conservation started in early 2015 when the Mexican Government declared a two-year ban on fishing in the Upper Gulf. In exchange, fishers were to receive monetary compensation comparable to average loss of earnings from fishing. From the beginning, the ban assumes that the decline in the vaquita population is a direct consequence of their incidental catch in any type of gillnet. By June 2019, fishers were still unable to fish and, since the beginning of the fishing ban, monetary compensation has been unreliable and insufficient, creating grave concerns about food insecurity and a rise in poverty. Fish and shrimp constitute the mainstay of a rich local tradition of food preparation and consumption based on a high protein diet which is no longer available as a direct result of vaquita conservation. Low quality shrimp brought from other parts of the Gulf of California is unaffordable for most local inhabitants, and without the daily catch of fish or shrimp traditionally brought by fishers to their households after each fishing trip, families find themselves consuming expensive meat once in a while and supplementing with high carbohydrate, low protein processed foods bought in supermarkets. Although no systematic studies have been conducted on the impact of this change in diet, there is significant concern about the rise in obesity and diabetes.
ILLEGAL TOTOABA FISHING
Despite a four-year fishing moratorium and at least five millions of dollars spent in vaquita conservation, the annual rate of decline of the vaquita population, according to conservationists, is at 50%, with an estimated 30 individuals left. Conservationists blame this precipitous decline on illegal fishing of totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), a large fish endemic to the central and upper Gulf and placed on the U.S. endangered species list in 1979. Highly sought after for its swim bladder, a valuable commodity considered a delicacy by Chinese buyers, totoaba has been able to withstand overexploitation, habitat change, and poaching.
Illegal totoaba fishing took off in 2013 when totoaba adults started to recover and Chinese buyers reopened a century old market, offering up to $5,000 per kilo of swim bladder. Because totoabas are slightly bigger than vaquitas, the incidental catch of vaquitas in totoaba gillnets, designed to catch 360 lbs and two-meter long individuals, is considered especially lethal by conservationists. Whereas vaquita conservationists see local fishers as totoaba poachers, local fishers deny involvement in a black market that carries significant risk. However, it is in this context of social and economic uncertainty produced by conservation that illegal markets become a feasible option despite the intrinsic dangers.
Many at the local level argue that the closure of all commercial fisheries in the Upper Gulf has substantially increased the payoff for illegal fishing in valuable commodities, like the totaba swim bladder, encouraging criminal elements to move into that ecosystem and conduct the activity in a much more destructive fashion. In this context, it has been postulated that drug-smuggling organizations may well be involved in the capture and trafficking of protected species. This not only takes poaching to new levels but may position conservation efforts as unintentional allies of powerful forces that, through corruptions and coercion, may be contributing to the demise of the vaquita.