SAN FELIPE, Mexico, Jan 27 (Reuters) – Efforts to protect the vaquita, the world’s smallest porpoise, have led to a significant decline in fishing in a protected area that is home to the critically endangered species, the Mexican government and non-profit after a year of enhanced partnership.
However, it is unclear whether the fishing ban in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez has translated into an increase in the vaquita population, which some biologists estimate has fallen to between 6 and 20.
Sea Shepherd, an NGO, partnered with Mexican authorities and the navy last year to promote “Operation Miracle,” a project to protect vaquitas by sharing information about illegal fishing in the waters where they live, known as Zone Zero tolerance .
A year later, the group said it had managed to reduce by more than 70% the number of hours fishing boats operate where the vaquitas live in the Pacific gulf that separates the Baja California peninsula from the mainland by ensuring that they cast – few networks.
Vaquitas, which grow to less than 5 feet (150 cm) in length, often become entangled and die in fishing nets cast to catch shrimp, fish or totoaba, a large fish whose swim bladder is illegally traded in Asia, where it valued in folk medicine.
Mexico is under international pressure to resolve the issue.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – the world’s leading body on the matter – has threatened Mexico with trade restrictions if it does not submit a plan to address threats to the species by the end of February.
Pritam Singh, chief executive of Sea Shepherd, told Reuters the group’s work has become more efficient as they work to prevent nets from entering the water or ensure they are removed within “a few minutes”.
Mexico’s navy has confirmed there is less fishing in the area, and this week the NGO sent a new boat to step up enforcement.
Rear Admiral Jose Carlos Tinoco Castrejon added that help from the fishing sector has been key: “They have cooperated with us in respecting the actions in favor of the fishing community,” he said.
However, experts remain cautious about the results of the effort, saying the decline in fishing may be more related to a recent decline in demand for totoaba in Asia, as well as strict controls on illegal business by some groups in the area that limit who is fishing
Last November, an American environmental group, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), accused the Mexican state of implementing toothless regulations that allow the illegal wildlife trade to flourish.
Senior CBD scientist and Mexico representative Alejandro Olivera said authorities should also be wary of activities such as shrimp fishing, as the nets used pose a risk to vaquitas.
“No matter how many people monitor, the outcome we’re all hoping for is the day we can count more vaquitas,” he said.
Reporting by Carlos Carrillo; Additional reporting by Carolina Pulis and Raquel Cunha; Editing by Sarah Moreland and Bill Berkrot
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