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Fishermen Plan Return To Vaquita’s Habitat Despite New Government Restrictions

Shrimp season starts in the uppermost part of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez this weekend. And with it hundreds of fishermen plan to return to the water. But that could cause conflict with Mexican authorities over new fishing restrictions in the area.

For years, fishermen who live and work near a protected area for the nearly extinct vaquita marina have struggled against fishing bans implemented to protect the little porpoise. Now, under pressure from the United States and the international community, Mexico has implemented new regulations that prohibit even the possession of nets considered dangerous to the vaquita, among other restrictions. And many fishermen in the region say they can’t and won’t abide by those rules.

"We're just looking for a way to keep working," said Lorenzo Garcia, head a local fishermen’s federation in the town of San Felipe. "We need some kind of solution."

Garcia said fishermen are open to alternative forms of fishing that could adequately replace the nets, but the government hasn’t presented viable options and has ignored their pleas for help. Fishermen here used to receive a stipend to compensate them for the loss of income that came with fishing bans. But the payments, which were already unreliable, completely stopped when President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office nearly two years ago.

Garcia said some fishermen were able to leave very early Friday morning to fish for shrimp before Mexican officials put up checkpoints to turn fishermen back. For now, they are being given about two months to turn over the banned fishing nets to authorities before sanctions would be implemented, according to the new restrictions. But Garcia said fishermen have invested in their nets, and without an alternative income, continuing to use them is the only way fishermen in the Upper Gulf of California can provide for their families.

Right now, Garcia said, he and other leaders are trying to come to an agreement with government officials to prevent potential clashes, as have occurred in the past.

"We're doing our best to stop that," he said. "But when people get inflamed, we just have to step out of the way."

He said fishermen are particularly frustrated that the government continues to put restrictions on legal fishing without providing alternatives, while poachers seem to have free reign in the area.

Illegal fishing for a large endangered fish called the totoabais considered the leading threat to the vaquita marina. Authorities work with nonprofits to look for poachers and their nets, but enforcement is widely considered ineffective. And many are concerned that recent budget cuts to the Mexico's environmental agencies will further deteriorate efforts to protect the vaquita and other species in the Sea of Cortez and throughout the country.

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