When the Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California were listed by UNESCO as an area of Outstanding Universal Value in 2005, it was noted that the site contained a third of the world’s marine cetacean species, most importantly, the endemic vaquita. In early July of this year, only 14 years after inscription, it was added to the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger. The reason for this change of status is simple: the well-documented precipitous decline and imminent extinction of the vaquita. It is feared that there were no more than around 10 vaquitas left (range of 6-19) in the late summer of 2018. Since then and through the first half of 2019, illegal fisheries have ramped up. Not only has illegal totoaba fishing continued and become more violent toward efforts to remove nets (see earlier vaquita updates this year), but also since the compensation program for fishermen was terminated without a readily available alternative fishing method , fishermen have returned to gillnetting for sharks, Spanish mackerel (or sierra, Scomberomorus sierra and S. concolor), chano (Micropogonias megalops), and curvina (Cynoscion othonopterus).
The World Heritage Committee stresses that the listing of a site as ‘in danger’ doesn’t represent a sanction, per se. Rather, it is meant as a way to stimulate and enhance action to protect threatened sites and endangered species. Countries, in this case Mexico, are encouraged to use the designation as an opportunity to attract funding and expertise and hence strengthen protection measures. We can only hope that Mexico acts decisively and urgently to address two of the key failures in its vaquita conservation strategy: (i) effective enforcement of laws and (ii) provision of alternative livelihoods for fishermen, including access to alternative fishing gear.