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Mexico Considers Shrinking Protected Area For Endangered Vaquita Marina Porpoise

Mexican officials could reduce the size of a protected area in the northernmost part of the Sea of Cortez where fishing nets are banned to protect a critically endangered porpoise, potentially putting the world’s smallest and most endangered marine mammal at greater risk.

A group of fishermen, nonprofits and government officials are considering shrinking a protected area for the vaquita marina. It's of several proposals that came out of the first meeting of of an intergovernmental group established last September to  improve conservation efforts and economic development in the Upper Gulf of California.

"It was very disappointing for everybody, for the nonprofits and also I think for the fishermen," said Alejandro Olivera, Mexico's representative for the Center for Biological Diversity. "It arrived very late, and it arrived without any new ideas or real strategy to save the vaquita and to support the fishermenliving in the region."

Olivera says fishermen in the Upper Gulf of California have been calling for a meeting with government officialssince before President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office more than two years ago to address the conflict between efforts to protect the vaquita marina and increasing hurdles to fishermen's livelihood.

But the proposal to reduce the protected area where nets aren't allowed would only further endanger the vaquita, which can get entangled in fishing nets and drown, he said

"It something to worry about, because vaquita, I mean, they need to move around. They don't live in corral. They don’t know when they’re in a danger zone or not," he said.

Mexican officials justified the possible modification to the protected area citing the reduced number of vaquita. Scientists estimate that there are only about 10 left.

Most researchers believe gill nets are the leading threat to the vaquita, especially those used by poachers to catch a large, endangered fish called the totoaba, which is roughly the same size as the little porpoise.

Legal fishermen in the region have argued that their smaller nets don't pose a risk to the vaquita, and are frustrated that the government continues to restrict their ability to make a living, while poachers continue to cast their nets undisturbed. Both fishermen and conservation groups complain that the Mexican government's lack of enforcement in the region.

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