More than a year ago Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña-Nieto announced a two year ban on the use of gillnets throughout the range of the vaquita in the Northernmost portion of the Gulf of California.  Since that time, conservationists in Mexico and the US have been clamoring for this ban to be made permanent.  This issue has been the central focus of numerous outreach campaigns, including International Save the Vaquita Day, an event celebrated at over 30 venues across the world just a few weeks ago.


When discussing the gillnet ban, biologists who study the vaquita are quick to point out that the species only raises one calf every two years, meaning that it needs much longer than two years to recover its population.  Mexico has been applauded by the international conservation community for their initial two year ban on gillnets, but always with the caveat that an extension of the ban period is necessary.

So although it is extremely exciting that Mexico has made this gillnet ban permanent, it’s important to point out that this action by itself will not save the vaquita from extinction.  We have been working to document this crisis situation faced by both the vaquita and the communities of the upper gulf region for over a year now, and we have been witness to numerous issues connected to the implementation of this ban.  If the Mexican government doesn’t address these issues with the current ban, this new action to make the ban permanent will not have the desired impact.

Here is the link to the Mexican government’s announcement about the permanent ban: 

You can read the English translation on our Facebook page here:

Here are our questions for the Mexican Government:

To what degree will enforcement of the ban be improved?  Will there be regular nighttime patrols conducted by the Navy?

Will the compensation program be extended?  Will a significant effort be put forth to end the rampant corruption associated with the current compensation program?

Will fisherman in the region be provided with alternative fishing gear free of cost?  Will there be a training program to teach fisherman how to use this new fishing gear?

Does this mean that the corvina fishery, which utilizes gillnets but was allowed under the current ban, will be stopped?

The bottom line here is that nobody truly knows what impact this current gillnet ban has had on the vaquita.  While this ban did drastically reduce the overall number of gillnets being used within the vaquita’s range, it also may have had the unintended consequence of increasing the number of gillnets specifically designed for catching totoaba being used in the region.  This is extremely important because the gillnets that are used for catching totoaba are particularly deadly for the vaquita.

The totoaba and the vaquita are of a similar size when full grown, which means that the size of the opening in the mesh of a totoaba gillnet is just the right size to trap and entangle a vaquita as well.  It is well documented that these totoaba gillnets entangle and kill significantly more vaquitas than any other type of gillnet, with 65-70% of all recorded entanglement deaths being caused by totoaba nets.

A gillnet used specifically for totoaba fishing.

A gillnet used specifically for totoaba fishing. Still frame from video shot by Sean Bogle.

So even though the overall number of gillnets being used has been reduced drastically, if totoaba net usage has increased, this may have offset any benefit associated with the overall reduction in gillnet use.  Of course it would be very difficult, if not impossible to determine for certain whether or not totoaba gillnet usage has increased, and if it has, by how much.  So on what basis are we speculating that the gillnet ban may have caused an increase in the usage of totoaba nets?

This idea has come directly from the fisherman of the upper gulf.  Everyone who we’ve spoken to over the past several months has told us that this most recent totoaba fishing season (which peaks in March and April when totoaba spawn near the delta of the Colorado River) was the most active season in recent memory.  The underlying cause here could be the gillnet ban itself – the ban effectively shut down all legal fisheries in the upper gulf region (with the exception of the corvina season, which was allowed), and fisherman have been telling us that more and more people are being forced into the illegal totoaba fishery just to make enough money to feed their families.

Unfortunately the compensation program set up by the Mexican government is riddled with corruption and is being administered unfairly.  The Center for Biological Diversity did an investigation into this and discovered that close to half of the total compensation funds are going to a select few individuals.  Several fisherman from the Islas del Golfo co-op, who we are following in our documentary, are actually receiving no compensation funds at all, despite the fact that they were the first ones to adopt vaquita friendly alternative fishing gear, way back in 2008.

So how are these fisherman expected to earn a living when fishing is taken away and the compensation program comes up short?  Many are telling us that they have been forced into the illegal totoaba fishery.  When we asked local fisherman how many of their fellow fisherman in the upper gulf region are participating in this illegal activity, estimates ranged from 85-100%!

This past March three dead vaquitas were recovered in the upper gulf, and all three of them died from gillnet entanglement.  With virtually all other types of gillnets out of the water, it’s pretty safe to assume that these were totoaba gillnets that killed these animals.  We won’t know the true impact that this past spring’s totoaba fishing season had on the vaquita population until the biologists who run the remote acoustic monitoring program start to see some results from their recent data.  These results may provide us with the answer that we’re looking for about the true impact of the gillnet ban on the vaquita population, but until then it will remain a mystery.

A permanent gillnet ban, while it seems on the surface like a giant step forward for vaquita conservation, actually has the potential to have a negative impact on the vaquita population if Mexico doesn’t truly commit to fixing the problems associated with the current ban.

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