When we began working on our documentary about the vaquita, Souls of the Vermilion Sea, this species of porpoise was already considered to be the most endangered marine mammal on the planet with population estimates in the range of 100 individuals.  This was just about one year ago, and the Mexican government had just imposed a two-year ban on the use of gillnets throughout the vaquita’s range, an action that was applauded by conservationists and marine researchers across the globe. We were full of hope for the future of the vaquita, and although we knew that the ban would have to become permanent for the species to survive long-term, we felt that this action had bought the vaquita some desperately needed time to begin its recovery.

We were dead wrong.  Mexico’s gillnet ban effectively put an end to the shrimp fishery here in the Northern Gulf of California, but it has done nothing to slow down the illegal totoaba fishery.  The totoaba is also endemic to the Northern Gulf of California’s unique ecosystem, and it is also considered endangered.  So how could a ban on gillnet fishing put a stop to the already illegal practice of fishing for totoaba?  The hope within the vaquita conservation community was that increased enforcement by the Mexican Navy would be a game-changer.

Unfortunately the vast majority of people going out to fish for totoaba are doing so under the cover of darkness, making enforcement extremely difficult. Fisherman can launch their small boats from anywhere along the coast, so the Navy patrols stationed at the San Felipe Marina aren’t going to prevent this type of activity. The Mexican Navy, with assistance from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, has been patrolling the waters of the Northern Gulf all hours of the night, but that’s a lot of area to cover, and the illegal nets that they pull out of the water are undoubtedly just the tip of the iceberg.

Dead totoaba found on the beach in San Felipe. Photo by Chris Snyder.

Dead totoaba found on the beach in San Felipe. Photo by Chris Snyder.

I wish that this was the end of the story, but in addition to all of this, we have been hearing anecdotal evidence that the intensity of the totoaba fishing effort has actually increased compared to previous years.  Local residents are finding totoaba carcasses strewn across the beaches with the swim bladders cut out.  One individual told us that she found eight totoaba carcasses in a single morning on the small stretch of beach that she walks daily.  Three dead vaquitas were found during the month of March, and we’ve been hearing reports of additional vaquita carcasses hidden by community members involved in the totoaba swim bladder trade.  When you have a vaquita population that consists of 50, or possibly even fewer individuals, the recovery of three dead animals is a big deal.  We’ll probably never know how many more than these three have actually been killed by gillnets set for totoaba over the past few months.

One of three dead vaquitas found in the past month. Photo by Chris Snyder.

One of three dead vaquitas found in March of 2016. Photo by Chris Snyder.

How could it be possible that illegal totoaba fishing has actually increased despite dramatically increased enforcement efforts?  We can only speculate, but there are a number of factors that, once considered, make this situation seem slightly less outrageous.

First, it is important to understand that San Felipe and El Golfo de Santa Clara (the two towns that are found within the gillnet exclusion zone) are fishing communities and have been for generations.  How are these families expected to make a living in the absence of a viable fishery?

The Mexican government thought it had the answer to this, and implemented a compensation program that would pay fisherman to not fish during the two-year gillnet ban period.  Unfortunately, this compensation program by all accounts has been riddled with corruption.  People who don’t deserve to be compensated (because they are not actually fisherman) are receiving the government funds, while many deserving fisherman are not receiving any funds at all.  Luckily there are people working hard to address this corruption problem, but can this issue be resolved with enough time to save the vaquita from extinction?

Tourism is often pointed out as a way for these communities to transition away from a fishing-based economy, but efforts to boost tourism revenue in the region have simply not panned out in the way that many hoped.  We remain hopeful that it is still possible for this region to move towards a tourism-based economy, but in reality this is not going to happen overnight.  In the meantime, the vaquita is slipping away right before our eyes.

Additionally, when the Mexican government imposed its two-year gillnet ban there remained a loophole.  The corvina fishing season would remain open despite the fact that it utilizes gillnets.  The idea behind this was that gillnets are used in a different way for the corvina fishery – the nets are not left to drift with the current unattended, but are instead left in the water for only 20-30 minutes at a time.  Although this limited use of gillnets may be safe for vaquita, this provides an excuse for fisherman to have gillnets in their boat when they are out on the water.  Is it a coincidence that three dead vaquitas have been recovered since the start of corvina season?

Corvina fishing with gillnets in the upper Gulf of California.

Corvina fishing with gillnets in the upper Gulf of California. Photo by Sean Bogle.

With the removal of all other viable fisheries in the region (with the limited exception of the corvina loophole), totoaba fishing has become big business.  It is now the largest viable fishery in the region with an estimated 85-90% of local fishermen participating in this illegal activity.  So if you are a fisherman struggling to get by, where do you turn?  What marketable skills do you have?  Do you try selling trinkets to the dwindling number of tourists on the malechon, or do you start fishing for totoaba?

This decision that so many fisherman are making becomes more comprehensible when you understand the huge reward – although the value of totoaba swim bladders on the Chinese market has actually been decreasing since 2010, a single large female bladder can still fetch upwards of $5,000.  And what happens to the fisherman who get caught?  They are slapped with a $5,000 fine – likely less money than they would earn on a good night out on the water.

Totoaba swim bladders confiscated by US Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo by Sean Bogle.

Totoaba swim bladders confiscated by US Fish and Wildlife Service. Photo by Sean Bogle.

Could the underbelly of this illegal industry get any darker?  Let’s talk about the Mexican drug cartels.  Drug cartels have likely been involved in the smuggling of totoaba swim bladders for a number of years, but this totoaba season is different.  Multiple cartel groups now have a presence in the region, and competition between these groups has made the role of the drug cartels more visible, and has also led to some conflict.

This situation intensified pretty dramatically towards the end of March, when a fisherman in El Golfo de Santa Clara refused to pay off an enforcement official upon returning from a night of totoaba fishing.  That enforcement official shot and killed the fisherman when he refused to pay this bribe.  The fisherman’s son, having witnessed his father’s homicide, then followed the enforcement official home, where he shot and killed him.

A double homicide in a sleepy fishing town with a population of less than 4,000 is a big deal, and the impact that this incident has had on the local community is quite dramatic.  Trust among local fisherman and community members has eroded completely, and the fear felt by this community is palpable.

Less than a week after this incident, the Mexican military responded with a dramatic increase in their presence in the region.  A total of 400 new military troops from the Mexican Navy and the Army were deployed to the area, along with nine additional Navy boats, two helicopters and three planes.  Was this dramatic surge in military presence a reaction to the increased presence of the drug cartels and the recent double homicide in Santa Clara?  Or can it been seen as the military’s last ditch effort to enforce the gillnet ban and save the vaquita from extinction?  Either way, the region now feels like an extension of the ongoing war between the Mexican military and the drug cartels.

Mexican government officials question local fisherman in El Golfo de Santa Clara. Photo by Sean Bogle.

Mexican government officials confiscate illegal panga from local fisherman in El Golfo de Santa Clara. Photo by Sean Bogle.

Does it seem silly to say that despite all this we still remain hopeful?  There is no doubt that both the vaquita and the communities of the Northern Gulf of California are in a heightened state of crisis right now, which has in turn put our production team into a heightened state of crisis.  If our singular goal is to produce a film that will have a positive impact on the vaquita, we have to move fast – a lot faster than we originally planned.  We’ll be announcing a new production schedule in the coming weeks.


Photo by Tom Gorman.

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