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Mexico to install concrete blocks in the vaquita marina’s habitat to keep fishing nets out

Mexico is set to begin placing concrete blocks around a protected area in the uppermost part of the Gulf of California. It’s part of an effort to keep fishing nets out of the habitat of the critically endangered vaquita marina porpoise.

Starting Friday, the Mexican Navy will place 193 concrete blocks around the Zero Tolerance Zone in the Upper Gulf of California. All fishing is prohibited in the area to protect the nearly extinct vaquita marina porpoise, which can get caught in fishing nets and drown.

But poaching continues in the region for a large fish called the totoaba, which is hunted for its swim bladder, or buche, which is trafficked to China, where it fetches high price on the black market. The gillnets used to catch totoaba are considered particularly dangerous to the vaquita, though experts say it can also get entangled in nets used to fish for other species as well.

The government says the nearly 3 ton blocks, each outfitted with two 11-foot-tall hooks, will snag gillnets, hopefully discouraging poachers for dropping nets in the protected area.

Local fishermen and conservationists, however, have called this just one more stunt by a government under pressure to prove it’s taking action.

"So far we haven’t found any evidence that this could work," said Alex Olivera, senior scientist and Mexico representative for the Center for Biological Diversity. "It would be a shame for the government to spend all these millions of pesos for the blocks not to work."

He said environmental assessments for the plan were approved in record time and with little transparency, and he’s concerned that nets snagged on the blocks could still trap vaquitas. The Navy has been tasked with monitoring for nets and removing them, but it is unclear how frequently that will happen.

For years now, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has been working with the Mexican government to remove nets from the vaquita's habitat through it's program Operation Milagro, and the group said it will continue that effort.

"The new concrete block hook system currently being installed will need constant monitoring to both detect, locate and remove any nets caught," David Hance, Sea Shepherd's chief operating officer and the executive director of Operation Milagro, said in a written statement. " Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, all in partnership and at the discretion of the Mexican Navy, can assist with the removal of any nets in the new concrete block system in the [Zero Tolerance Zone], there fore continuing to protect the Vaquita Refuge from illegal fishing gear."

But Olivera said he and others are still skeptical of the plan, which will impact the area indefinitely.

The real solution, he said, has been clear for years: better enforcement and surveillance in the region. to keep poachers out of the water in the first place.

However, that hasn't happened, leading to escalating international pressure on Mexico to address the dire situation in which fewer than 10 vaquita marinas are estimated to remain.

Olivera said the government continues to lack the political will to full tackle the situation.

"It's a mix of things, like corruption, lack of budget, lack of dealing with this issues as a priority. Yeah, lack of political interest," he said.

Experts continue to argue that the vaquita marina's population could rebound if it weren't for the ongoing threat of fishing nets in the region.

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