Illegal fishing remains the sole immediate threat to vaquitas
Recent claims have been made that a reduction in illegal gillnet fishing in the northern Gulf of California is allowing for a gradual population recovery of the vaquita, Mexico’s endemic, critically endangered porpoise. Earlier recommendations by the Vaquita Recovery Team (CIRVA—Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita) had stressed that the vaquita could be saved from extinction only if gillnets were banned throughout its range and fishers adopted viable vaquita-safe fishing methods. In 2020, a 12 x 24 km area where the few remaining individuals were regularly found was designated a Zero Tolerance Area (ZTA), where the gillnet ban would be strictly enforced. Recent observations, however, indicate that illegal fishing is still rampant within the ZTA: during the shrimp season in October/November 2021 (Report here), 117 pangas were documented in the ZTA – the combined length of their nets could have spanned the 24-km length of the ZTA at least five times. 30 counts of pangas within the ZTA were made from the SSCS ship that indicate daily presence of illegal fishing ( see full report in English and in Spanish). On 19 January 2022 (Report here), during totoaba season, 58 pangas were counted fishing inside the ZTA, at a time when a new accord between the Mexican Navy and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society was supposed to have greatly reduced illegal fishing within the ZTA. If vaquitas are to be saved from extinction, at a minimum, the ban on gillnet fishing in the ZTA must be enforced, and current evidence indicates that this is not happening.
Documenting illegal fishing has been difficult but photographs taken during the 2019 and 2021 vaquita surveys within the ZTA (see below) show gillnets clearly visible on pangas in the launch areas and in use within the ZTA. A video of pangas launching from downtown San Felipe, with gillnets clearly visible as the only gear in use is provided here.