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Ani Youatt’s Blog

Mexico Steps up to the Plate for Endangered Porpoise

Ani Youatt

Posted November 3, 2009

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The World Series is heating up, but for me, the real home run from the past week is Mexico's decision to severely limit shrimp trawling in the Upper Gulf of California, Mexico -- the only home of the world's last 150 vaquita marina porpoises

We've been gaining steady ground over the past two years to save the vaquita from ending up in nets set by artisan fishermen in small skiffs for fish and shrimp.   But in mid-July, conservation efforts received a major blow.  Trawl fishermen submitted an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to Mexico's Ministry of Environment to allow 109 large, industrial boats to trawl in the Upper Gulf of California Biosphere Reserve for shrimp, including within the Vaquita Refuge (click here to see my blog). 

It seems like a no-brainer that trawling and "refuge" should be like oil and water.  But Mexico was under pressure to consider the proposal.   Although the refuge was created in 2005 to protect the vaquita, there are no laws on the books that state that trawling is illegal within it.   Furthermore, even though trawling is technically illegal in a protected area because it exceeds acceptable levels of by-catch, trawlers have been permitted to operate in the region for nearly two decades.    Reversing course is not a simple or easy task.  Yet, if we are to save the vaquita from extinction tough decisions must be made and unregulated fishing can no longer be the status quo.

NRDC and local Mexican partners ramped up advocacy efforts to respond to this new threat.  Our bottom line was that we opposed three principle elements of the proposal.  One, we were against any trawling being permitted in the Vaquita Refuge.   This was a non-negotiable point.   Second, the proposal included 27 boats from outside of the Upper Gulf (21 from Guaymas and 6 from Mazatlan).  Mexican law is very clear that in a protected area natural resource extraction is only permitted when it produces benefits to local inhabitants.  Third, the EIS was woefully inadequate and grossly underestimated the impact of trawling on an ecosystem Jacques Cousteau once called the "aquarium of the world". 

We took our message to the Mexican Government, US Government and US importers of Mexican shrimp.   We were joined by 27,500 messages from our members and on-line activists asking Mexico to reject the proposal and hold up the rule of law. 

On October 26, 2009, Mexico's Ministry of Environment stepped up to the plate.  They issued a  resolution that bans all trawling in the Vaquita Refuge, limits trawling in the Biosphere Reserve to 82 boats (effectively removing the 27 outside boats), and places a series of restrictive measures on the remaining trawlers calling for best-practices, monitoring of by-catch, and zero catch of vaquitas and turtles.   Furthermore, fishermen will be required to submit another EIS for their activities next year.  

The decision is a giant positive step forward.  For the first time, the Vaquita Refuge will be a no-fishing zone.  After a decade of unchecked, uncontrolled fishing by as many as 400 trawlers there are some limits and restrictions in place for 82 locally owned boats.   There are even measures to support effective monitoring of trawling activities and by-catch. 

Of course, the resolution isn't perfect.  The vaquita's range is not limited to the refuge area and even with best practices the level of by-catch by trawlers exceeds the legal, allowable amount for a Biosphere Reserve.   But most significantly, the decision signals a change in course for the human relationship to the vaquita, and for that reason I consider it to be a sucess.  I remain hopeful that it charts the path to a sustainable future for the Upper Gulf...a future that includes both the vaquita porpoise and artisan fishermen.

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