Three years ago, when I began working on a documentary focused on the vaquita’s extinction crisis, the species was a complete unknown. Even experts in the field of conservation had never heard the name when I pitched them the idea of making a film about the plight of this animal, the world’s smallest species of cetacean (the group that includes all whales, dolphins and porpoises). The situation was dire then, but there was still hope. We began shooting for our film right as the Mexican government imposed a ban on the use of gillnets throughout the vaquita’s range in the northernmost corner of the Gulf of California – it is the use of gillnets that is responsible for the species’ dramatic decline because the vaquita become entangled and drown in the nets.
At the time, we thought there was a good chance that this gillnet ban would save the vaquita. Unfortunately the opposite turned out to be true - we watched as the vaquita’s rate of decline actually increased, and the conditions of the people living in the fishing communities of the northern Gulf of California continued to deteriorate. To understand how and why this happened, we need to take a step back and analyse what has been driving the vaquita’s decline. It all starts with another fish – the totoaba.
Over the past ten years the illegal practice of fishing for totoaba has taken off, driven by the demand for their swim bladder in China where the organ is used in traditional medicine. This practice is illegal because since the 1970s the totoaba has been listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as critically endangered. While there is some debate as to the validity of this status, it doesn’t change the fact that it was illegal to fish for totoaba even before Mexico imposed its gillnet ban in 2015. The ban was also accompanied by a dramatic show of force from the Mexican government. Right away the presence of the Mexican Navy in these small towns became substantial, and President Peña-Nieto promised that this attention would enforce the law.
However, the power of the Mexican drug cartels and their ability to control this growing illegal market has quashed Mexico’s enforcement effort. Almost certainly there were backdoor meetings already happening between high-level government officials and cartel leaders in the lead-up to the implementation of the gillnet ban. The cartels saw the huge potential that this high-demand market for totoaba swim bladders held – here was a product worth significantly more than any drug and there was a relatively low risk of getting caught (certainly much lower than smuggling drugs). While Mexican government officials were planning to ban the use of all gillnets, cartel leaders were strategically planning a dramatic expansion of the totoaba swim bladder trade.
The Mexican drug cartels needed the cooperation of the fisherman of San Felipe and El Golfo de Santa Clara if they were to be successful in expanding the trade. This was a serious obstacle, given that the drug cartels are not particularly popular among average working-class Mexicans. An opportunity existed at that moment for Mexican government agencies to step in and create legitimate economic opportunities for the fisherman of this region. Unfortunately, efforts were hampered by rampant government corruption and the influence of the cartels. Efforts to test new alternative fishing gear were held back by corrupt officials and the rollout of a government compensation program for fisherman was also riddled with corruption.
I first visited the town of San Felipe in the summer of 2015, soon after the gillnet ban was imposed. Virtually everyone I spoke to informed me that the Mexican government had banned all fishing in the region. I soon began to understand that this attitude presented a serious problem. The gillnet ban was viewed by many fishermen as a complete ban on fishing because they didn’t believe that they had any economically viable alternatives. This was exactly what the cartels wanted – a community of people desperate to make some money.
There was one group of fisherman who did believe that they had an alternative. In 2008 the government recruited a small fishing cooperative to start testing alternative equipment. These fisherman liked the products that they were testing, which included small trawlers with an escape hatch for marine mammals and turtles, baited fish traps and a variety of other designs. There was hope among them that the gillnet ban would open up greater opportunities to use the new gear. There were also partner groups from the US that were ready to purchase their seafood at a price that would allow the fisherman to be profitable. However, when this small group applied for their permits to fish with the alternative gear, after the gillnet ban was imposed, their applications went unanswered. They never received their permits.
I have heard repeated criticism from a variety of sources regarding the Mexican agencies responsible for managing fisheries - CONAPESCA (Comision Nacional de Aquacultura y Pesca) and INAPESCA (Instituto Nacional de Pesca y Acuacultura). Why would these agencies refuse to issue permits for alternative fishing gear at the very moment when it was most crucial for these sustainable fishing methods to be implemented? CONAPESCA and INAPESCA were playing into the hands of the drug cartels, and they created an opportunity for organised crime to take a stranglehold on the communities of the upper gulf.
Over the next two years the increased influence of organised crime in San Felipe and El Golfo de Santa Clara was blatantly on display. The illegal totoaba fishery (which relied on the continued use of gillnets) was booming, and it seemed like there was nothing that the Mexican Navy and other agencies tasked with enforcement could do to slow it down. That first year after the gillnet ban totoaba fisherman would find remote locations along the coast to launch their nets, completely avoiding law enforcement. By the next year’s fishing season, we watched totoaba fisherman come right into the San Felipe marina with their product and hand it out in the open, all while Mexican Navy officers took strategically timed smoke breaks. The corruption was getting worse, not better.
As it became easier for organised crime to operate in the region, more and more fishermen started to participate in the illegal totoaba fishery. We spoke to numerous fisherman who admitted to participating (most, although not all of them, wanted to remain anonymous). We asked each of them to give us an estimate of the level of participation among all the fisherman in the region. Estimates ranged from 80 to 100 per cent.
It also became clear that fisherman from other parts of Mexico were traveling to San Felipe during the height of the totoaba fishing season. This was a point of contention among many local fisherman and community members and was seen as an indicator of the growing influence of the cartels. We were told to watch out for Sinaloa license plates - Sinaloa is the Mexican state just south of Sonora and is infamous for being home to the largest of Mexico’s drug cartels.
A number of fisherman with whom we talked openly admitted to having a strong desire to catch totoaba, but either didn’t have the resources, or didn’t have the right connections to sell the product. My co-director Sean Bogle shot an extended interview with a homeless man who had been deported from the US, and had come to San Felipe because of the hype over totoaba fishing. Because he couldn’t afford a boat, and didn’t have the right connections to get a position on an established crew of totoaba fisherman, he would string together old gillnets that washed up on shore and throw them out to sea from the end of the jetty near the San Felipe marina. He claimed to have successfully caught several small totoaba using this technique.
It soon became clear that there was a growing consensus within the communities of San Felipe and Santa Clara that legalising the totoaba fishery, and turning this black market for totoaba swim bladders into a white market, would be the best way to address the issue. We were shocked to learn that there are several totoaba hatcheries across Baja California, and that hundreds of thousands of young totoaba raised in these hatcheries are released into the Northern Gulf each year. We started to question the validity of the totoaba’s status as critically endangered, and we weren’t alone. It turns out that lots of people, from the fisherman who live in the region to well respected marine biologists think that de-listing the species and legalising the fishery should be seriously considered. Why hasn’t it happened yet? The answer: There hasn’t been a published stock assessment of totoaba conducted since the 1970s, and without any idea how many totoaba remain in the wild, the IUCN won’t even consider de-listing the species.
Nobody is advocating for the use of totoaba gillnets to become legal again – these are the nets driving the vaquita to extinction – but fishing for totoaba with a fishing pole or a hand line wouldn’t pose any risk to the vaquita, and could be managed in a sustainable way. Back in the 1950s and 60s there was a significant tourist industry in San Felipe that revolved around a sport fishery for totoaba. Re-opening this could become a driver for tourism and provide a boost to the local economy.
Although the idea of de-listing the totoaba and legalising the swim bladder trade was being actively considered, it was clear by 2017 that it wasn’t going to happen fast enough to save the vaquita. The world’s top vaquita experts had been planning a last-ditch attempt to save the species, and in the fall of 2017 a group of over 60 marine mammal experts converged on San Felipe to capture the last remaining vaquitas and initiate a captive breeding program. Everyone involved understood that this was the last chance to save the species from extinction, and it was a truly remarkable effort.
Sadly, the vaquita capture effort came to a dramatic halt in September 2017, when an adult female vaquita died soon after being captured. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, the chief scientist for the capture effort, along with a team of marine mammal experts, had to make the difficult decision to shut down the program, reasoning that the species likely wouldn’t be able to survive in captivity.
In my mind, the tragic death of that vaquita signalled the end of the battle. No one that we spoke to had any tangible ideas for how to prevent the vaquita’s extinction after the collapse of the capture effort, so although a handful of vaquitas remain in the wild, they are almost certainly destined for extinction.
This battle could be seen as just one small component of Mexico’s war against the drug cartels. It’s also a war between honest players working within the government and entrenched officials and politicians who are happy to line their pockets with bribes and pay offs. The vaquita are not the only casualty of this war - it’s one that has caused untold suffering for people across Mexico and beyond.
This war mirrors similar struggles going on all across the globe. In many of the countries of eastern and southern Africa elephants and rhinos are the casualties. Just as in Mexico, poor people with limited economic opportunities are being taken advantage of by organised criminal networks and corrupt government officials.
This is what conservation looks like in the 21st century. We are no longer fighting to get wilderness protection for pristine tracts of land - we are fighting a global war against a massive and rapidly growing network of highly organised criminals who have already infiltrated governments across the world. The stakes are incredibly high - we’re fighting to prevent the sixth mass extinction and catastrophic climate change, and our odds of success diminish with each passing year. Some would argue that it’s already too late.
I wish I had a solution to propose that might solve this global crisis, but sadly I do not. My only hope is that more and more people will begin to understand that conservation in the 21st century is about economics, politics, criminal enterprise, large-scale government corruption and globalisation, as well as scientific research and education. We need social and economic justice programs implemented on a grand scale if we are to have any hope of alleviating the impact of climate change and preserving as much biodiversity as possible. We must understand how unreasonable it is to expect someone who can’t afford to feed their family to join a campaign to save a species, or halt climate change. Our efforts must include sustainable economic opportunities for those in need as well as address corruption and criminality in governmental systems. We have to think about more than technological solutions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we must address the root causes behind our current crisis: greed and corruption.
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