Mexican environment secretary talks tourism
SAN FELIPE, Mexico––The first-ever capture of an extremely endangered vaquita porpoise on October 18, 2017 in the Sea of Cortez, disclosed a day later, upstaged statements by Mexican environment secretary Rafael Pacchiano indicating that the capture might have been undertaken less from the hope of saving an endangered animal than from perceiving the opportunity to develop ecotourism around the effort.
The six-month-old baby female vaquita, believed to have been too young to survive without her mother, was hauled aboard a capture vessel about a week after the U.S. Navy deployed three bottlenose dolphins to the Sea of Cortez, in the Gulf of California, to help find and herd into a captive breeding program eight of the estimated last 30 vaquitas.
Favors legal totoaba fishing, too
The project, called VaquitaCPR, is touted as the last hope of the vaquita species. Always rare, vaquitas in recent years have been brought to the edge of extinction by often drowning in illegal drift nets set to catch totoaba.
Totoaba are an endangered large fish whose swim bladders are valued in China as culinary substitutes for those of the Chinese bahaba.
The bahaba, a much larger but distantly related fish native to the Chinese coast, is also on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature “red list” due to overfishing.
The VaquitaCPR project is widely considered risky because vaquitas have never before been held in captivity, let alone bred in captivity.
The VaquitaCPR project has also been extensively criticized as alleged makework for the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program, which has lacked a clear mission for more than 30 years, and has been often decried as a boondoggle.
Did dolphins do something to baby’s mother?
A further risky element of the VaquitaCPR project is that bottlenose dolphins in the wild routinely hunt down porpoises, then batter them to death as playthings.
Knowledge of this aspect of bottlenose dolphin behavior led to immediate questions about how the baby vaquita captured on October 18, 2017 was caught and where her mother was, both at the time and afterward.
“Shortly after capture,” reported Sandra Dibble of the San Diego Union-Tribune, “the female calf was released back into the wild,” according to a statement by scientists with the VaquitaCPR conservation project and Pacchiano.
Asserted the VaquitaCPR media statement, the vaquita calf “was being closely monitored by marine mammal veterinarians and showed signs of stress, leading to its release.”
“Tissue samples” taken from baby
Wrote Dibble, “It was unclear how long the vaquita remained in captivity, but a photograph showed her swimming in a protected sea pen just off the coast of San Felipe,” at the western edge of the Sea of Cortez.
“The vaquita calf was returned to the same spot in the Gulf of California where she was found,” Dibble continued. “Tissue samples from the animal will be shared with several institutions, including including the Frozen Zoo in San Diego, which will conduct genetic sequencing, the statement said.”
No details were given about what the “tissue samples” consisted of, or of how they were taken.
Said International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita chair Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, the lead scientist for the VaquitaCPR project, “While we were disappointed we could not keep the vaquita in human care, we have demonstrated that we are able to locate and capture a vaquita.”
Opening the vaquita sanctuary to tourism
Exulted Pacchiano, “The successful rescue made conservation history and demonstrates that the goal of VaquitaCPR is feasible. No one has ever captured and cared for a vaquita porpoise, even for a brief period of time. This is an exciting moment and as a result, I am confident we can indeed save the vaquita marina from extinction.”
But word of the transient capture of the baby vaquita was released to media only hours after Fanny Miranda of the leading Mexican newspaper, radio, and television news chain Milenio reported, extensively quoting Pacchiano, that “Beginning in February 2018, the Mexican government will begin issuing permits for legal totoaba fishing in San Felipe, and will promote the opening to tourism of the newly created vaquita sanctuary in the upper Gulf of California.”
Addressing a forum entitled “Tourism is well-being: towards a state tourist policy with a perspective to 2040,” Pacchiano “stressed that President Enrique Peña has asked the Chinese government to help combat the illegal trafficking of totoaba swimming bladders, and to work together [with Mexico] to explore the opening of a legal market for this fish and its derivatives,” Miranda wrote.
Wants piece of the totoaba market
Pacchiano acknowledged that the totoaba is itself “a species classified as endangered, whose furtive fishing caused the decline of the vaquita,” Miranda continued.
Nonetheless, Pacchiano insisted that by allowing legal totoaba fishing, “The government will have control of how many permits are given, who they are given to, and above all will have an auction mechanism to raise the price of the fishes and see to it that the benefit goes to the local [legal] fishers.”
The latter argument overlooked that high prices for legally caught totoaba could encourage poaching as a cheaper source of supply.
Pacchiano, said Miranda, argued that even though totoaba have been a species in decline at least since 1975, all that prohibition of catching them has done has raised the prices paid to poachers. Pacchiano contended that according to government population studies, totoaba have “recovered and can be exploited in a controlled manner.”
“More totoaba now than in 1940”
Claimed Pacchiano, “There are more totoaba now than in 1940. The reasonable and very careful use of totoaba could generate at least double the economy that is being generated in San Felipe today, with a single fishing activity. This is also an important opportunity that can detonate opportunities for tourists who want to come to the area, first to know the vaquita, but also to return to sport fishing and the sustainable use of 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.
Between completion of the dams, which reduced the fresh water flow to as little as 4% of the 1910-1920 average, totoaba came into vogue as a food fish.
“Frenzy of fishing”
“In a frenzy of fishing in 1942,” Washington Post environment writer Darryl Fears recalled in December 2014, “Mexicans caught more than 2,000 tons of totoaba, also probably pulling up drowned vaquitas in nets that lingered in the water.”
However, because no one knew anything about vaquitas then, who were not even formally recognized as a species until 1958, no one officially noticed or kept track of their decline until more than 30 years later.
Meanwhile, Pacchiano told the tourism forum, the VaquitaCPR project “is going to generate a significant tourist demand, because people are going to want to meet the vaquitas, they will want to know what the protection efforts are, and this is going to be an unbeatable opportunity for San Felipe, and for entrepreneurs who want to invest in San Felipe.”