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Unfettered Poaching Threatens Nearly Extinct Porpoise During Pandemic

vaquita refuge
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
editorial | staff
Sunrises over the Sea of Cortez outside the little town of San Felipe, Baja California.

Despite the pandemic, poachers are still catching and killing a huge fish called the totoaba in Mexico's Sea of Cortez, putting a critically endangered porpoise at risk of extinction.

Videos taken by local fishermen show dozens of dead totoaba washing ashore, piles of discarded and decaying fish, and boats full of men slicing out totoaba swim bladders.

The bladders, called buches, sell for thousands of dollars on the black market in Asia, and even though China has cracked down on wildlife trade to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, Alejandro Olivera with the Center For Biological Diversity in Mexico said there are many poachers stockpiling the swim bladders until they can sell them more easily.

But the nets used to catch the totoaba are the leading threat to the world’s most endangered marine mammal — the vaquita marina porpoise — that can get caught in the nets and drown. There are only an estimated 10 vaquita left in the Sea of Cortez.

Now, conservation activists with the international group Sea Shepherd who usually patrol the vaquita's habitiatto remove illegal nets have gone home to protect crew members from the coronavirus outbreak, and that leaves the vaquita more vulnerable than ever, Olivera said.

"Without Sea Shepherd retrieving all the fishing gear that poses a threat, the chances for the vaquita are less and less," he said, adding that while there are still Mexican Navy in the area, there have been no arrests or investigations despite widespread knowledge that poachers continue to illegally fish for the totoaba.

"Authorities need to do their jobs," he said.

Legal Fishermen 'Indignant'

Ramón Franco, head of a fishing federation in San Felipe, agreed that enforcement is lax.

"The legal fishing sector that I represent is indignant at the situation," he said. "We have videos that are living proof that the authorities don't care to do anything about poaching."

Franco said legal fishermen are in a tough spot, as the  U.S. has embargoed seafood from the region because of poaching. But that just makes it harder for legal fishermen to make a living.

"The sad reality is that the communities in the Upper Gulf of California don't matter to the federal government," he said.

Over a year ago, legal fishermen returned to areas of the Sea of Cortez where fishing with gilnets is banned because the Mexican government stopped paying them compensation to stay out of the water. Now, limits on where and how they can fish, as well as the U.S. embargo, make it hard for legal fishermen to support their families, Franco said.

Some fishermen are practically giving their catch away, trading their fish whatever for groceries and supplies they can get, Olivera added.

"The Mexican government needs provide them with economic incentives," he said. "They are doing an important activity. So they should have support."

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Kendal Blust was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2018 to 2023.