Rioters damaged marine law enforcement capacity throughout the Sea of Cortez
GOLFO DE SANTA CLARA, Sonora, Mexico––Wall or no wall along the Mexican border, the furious rejection of environmental regulation characterizing U.S. President Donald Trump’s first six weeks in office appears to be shared by some of the violent lawbreakers whom Trump claims he wants to build the border wall to keep out.
Irked by enforcement of fishing regulations meant to save the highly endangered vaquita porpoise and endangered totoaba fish, fishers from Golfo de Santa Clara on the night of March 8, 2017 “burned 15 official vehicles, damaged federal offices, set fire to the Federal Office of Environmental Protection’s boats, stole a vessel that had been impounded by authorities of the Navy Secretariat, and injured inspectors in the sector,” reported Amalia Escobar, Hermosillo correspondent for El Universal.
28 federalés injured
“The Federal Office of Environmental Protection (Profepa) filed a criminal complaint against those responsible,” Escobar continued. “The complaint details that 10 employees of Profepa and the National Commission of Protected Areas (Conanp), as well as 18 officers of the National Aquaculture and Fisheries Commission (Conapesca) were assaulted. Three Profepa inspectors who were beaten managed to leave the village together,” Escobar added, “with two other companions, and managed to find shelter in nearby San Luis Rio Colorado.”
The violence, especially the destruction of equipment, crippled marine conservation efforts throughout the Colorado River delta area of the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez.
Following a blockade of the road from San Luis Rio Colorado that was thrown up after a rumor spread that a government motorcade might soon be coming, the riot was documented by eyewitness accounts and cell phone video as it occurred. About two dozen men were shown overturning a pickup truck, in front of perhaps 50-100 witnesses, dimly discernible in the background.
Escobar provided the first detailed written account of what had happened more than 24 hours later, from Hermosillo, 630 kilometers away. The nearest city of size was Mexicali, 72 kilometers north.
Associated Press, Mexico News Daily, Yucatan Times, and a variety of U.S. media later provided further background to Escobar’s coverage.
“The fishermen’s beef is that they want to be able to fish corvina,” summarized Mexico News Daily, “but the issuance of a permit by Conapesca has been delayed. New regulations require that an environmental impact statement must be approved by Semarnat before the fishing vessels sail. According to the federal environmental agency Profepa, the fishers’ collective didn’t file the statement until February 22, a few days before that start of the corvina fishing season. Officials said that this showed irresponsibility on the part of the fishers’ leadership.”
Wrote Escobar, “The fishers reported that they are without resources, because their only source of income is fishing. They say they feel desperate because the shrimp harvest was closed for two seasons and in January of this year the Ministry of Health, through the State Commission for Protection Against Health Risks (Coesprikson) declared a precautionary ban on clams and oysters in the Upper Gulf of California due the the presence of a red tide.”
What are vaquitas?
Vaquita porpoises live only in the Sea of Cortez. The smallest and most endangered of the world’s 128 cetaceans, vaquitas were not scientifically identified until 1958, several years after their existence was first suspected from discoveries of skulls. Their closest relative is Burmeister’s porpoise, found thousands of miles south, from coastal Peru to both sides of the tip of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina.
Mexican National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change marine biologist Armando Jaramillo told Sandra Dibble of the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2015 that the estimated vaquita population had fallen from 567 in an initial survey done in 1997 to the present 40 at most. About 80% of the losses are believed to have been vaquitas drowned accidentally in gill nets set by totoaba poachers.
What are totoaba?
Totoaba, the largest of the drum family, are a slow-breeding fish weighing up to 200 pounds, once common in the Colorado River delta area, but declining for more than 80 years as an apparent result of the decline in fresh water flow that followed completion of Hoover Dam in 1936 and the Glen Canyon dam in 1956.
In 2005 gill netting was restricted over about 200 square miles of the Colorado delta region, to protect both totoaba and vaquita, but circa 2010 both species crashed, coinciding with the discovery of Chinese chefs serving upscale clients that the swim bladders of totoaba taste similar to those of the Chinese bahaba. The bahaba, a much larger but distantly related fish native to the Chinese coast, had already been fished to the point of having been added to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature red list.
Failed conservation efforts
Trying desperately to save both totoaba and vaquita, Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto in 2015 committed two new boats, light aircraft and drones to the effort to intercept gill-netting poachers, and extended the existing gill net prohibition area to 1,150 square miles, covering the entire area where vaquita are known to have been seen.
The Nieto government also pledged to spend nearly $36 million per year through 2017 to buy gill nets and other equipment from as many as 806 small boats and buy back the permits from as many as 1,354 individual fishers working out of the villages of San Felipe and Golfo de Santa Clara.
But the buyback program has not persuaded many fishers to change their trade, in a region where there are few other career options, and catching a totoaba for clandestine sale to brokers serving upscale Chinese restaurants can be a quick financial windfall for a struggling family.
U.S. Navy dolphins
The U.S. Navy late in 2016 announced that “trained [Navy] dolphins and their handlers will participate in a last-ditch effort to catch, enclose and protect the last few dozen of Mexico’s critically endangered vaquita porpoises,” reported Associated Press writer Mark Stevenson. Whether that project will proceed under the Trump administration is unclear.
World Wildlife Fund-Mexico chief executive Omar Vidal, Dolphin Project founder Ric O’Barry, Dolphin Freedom Foundation founder Russ Rector, and Campaign to End the Obsolete Navy Marine Mammal Program founder Rick Trout all responded to Stevenson’s report with similar comments to the effect that trying to use U.S. Navy dolphins to help herd the last few dozen highly endangered vaquita porpoises into sea pens for captive breeding would be practically a prescription for extinction.
Vaquitas have no history of surviving in captivity, let alone of breeding in captivity; bottlenose dolphins such as used by the U.S. Navy hunt and kill porpoises for sport; and even if the dolphins could be trained to locate and perhaps herd vaquitas without harming them, the stress of being located by dolphins might well kill the last vaquitas by itself.