Alleges boycott jeopardizes anti-poaching work to save the vaquita
SAN FELIPE, Mexico––Leading an international boycott of Mexican shrimp called on behalf of the endangered vaquita porpoise, the Animal Welfare Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity have yet to publish a promised response to a December 3, 2017 appeal from Sea Shepherd Conservation Society founder Paul Watson asking them and more than 50 other organizations endorsing the boycott to call it off.
Animal Welfare Institute marine wildlife consultant Kate O’Connell did, however, on December 11, 2017 forward to ANIMALS 24-7 a statement “Addressing the merits and justifications for the campaign to boycott Mexican shrimp” which does not directly respond to Watson and indeed does not even address his focal concerns.
Animal Welfare Institute wildlife biologist D.J. Schubert told ANIMALS 24-7 on December 5, 2017 that the group response to Watson’s criticism of the boycott would “be posted soon.”
O’Connell said that “Addressing the merits and justifications for the campaign to boycott Mexican shrimp” had been posted on December 8, 2017.
“They should initiate a ban on shrimp”
Watson, meanwhile, in a follow-up Facebook posting qualified his initial extensive critique of the boycott by agreeing with AWI, the NRDC, and the Center for Biological Diversity that, “They should initiate a ban on shrimp because of the shrimp fishery,” just “not link it to the vaquita, which is dangerous to the vaquita and the people trying to protect the vaquita.”
Several animal charities that initially endorsed the boycott told ANIMALS 24-7 that in light of Watson’s criticisms, they were reconsidering their support of it. The Lifeforce Foundation, of British Columbia, Canada, withdrew from the boycott.
As few as 18 vaquita remain, following a failed attempt in October and early November 2017 to bring the last survivors into a captive breeding program.
(See Vaquita captures suspended after death of female of breeding age.)
“Kicking a hornet’s nest”
Wrote Watson in opposition to the boycott, “We all want to save the vaquita. Fifty-eight organizations decided to approach it with a campaign to boycott Mexican shrimp,” which Watson called “A very easy no-get-your-hands-dirty campaign guaranteed to get the attention of Mexican fishermen, especially those who are not harming the vaquita.
“It worked,” Watson conceded. “They got their attention in the manner of kicking a hornet’s nest. It was an ill-thought out but easy campaign. Funds can be raised, appeals can be sent out, and the appearance of championing the cause to save the vaquita can be had, without taking any risks or doing the actual dirty work of removing nets and stopping poachers.
“Their appearance of doing something, however, endangers the lives of our crews and threatens our ships,” Watson charged.
“None of them are are actually on the front lines”
“The two things all these groups have in common are that they are calling for a boycott of Mexican shrimp and none of them are actually on the front lines.
“Sea Shepherd is on the front lines,” Watson reminded. “Our crew walk amongst the fishermen and they see our ships every day. This was not a problem until recently. Now this boycott has made us a target.
“Sea Shepherd has been catching poachers,” in the Sea of Cortez at the northern end of the Gulf of California, where the vaquita lives, “and removing nets since 2014,” Watson continued.
“It is my opinion that the vaquita would now be extinct if Sea Shepherd had not been there month after month, and year after year, removing and destroying hundreds of nets.
“Recently fisherman were even working with us”
“Right now we have two ships and dozens of crew in the Sea of Cortez,” Watson said, “and we are sending a third vessel. It has been long hours of hard dirty work pulling these nets, cutting live animals from the nets, and sadly cutting away the dead animals.
“Working with the Mexican government, we have had no problems,” Watson stated, “until earlier this year [March 16, 2017] when this boycott was called. Recently fishermen were even working with us to pull nets.
“Although we are not a part of the boycott,” Watson affirmed, “our ships and crew are the only highly visible conservationists operating in the vaquita refuge and the Sea of Cortez. That makes Sea Shepherd a magnet for anger and outrage from the fishermen––not the poachers, but the fishermen who prior to the boycott were not a threat to us. In fact many of them were sympathetic to our efforts.
“Burned a small boat with our name on it”
“That was until the boycott,” Watson said. “Earlier this year they burned a small boat with our name on it and threatened to burn our ships and harm our crew. The Mexican navy had to arrive to protect us. And now the fishermen are outraged again, and again they are threatening our ships and crews. Our crews cannot go into town to shop for supplies. The fishermen are blocking roads and burning government vehicles.
“It is also noteworthy,” Watson noted, “that on the BoycottMexicanShrimp.com website where it lists what is being done to save the vaquita, Sea Shepherd’s efforts are not mentioned.”
The statement “Addressing the merits and justifications for the campaign to boycott Mexican shrimp,” added to the BoycottMexicanShrimp.com web site on December 8, 2017, includes a sentence from the boycott organizers saying that, “With fewer than 30 vaquita left on the planet, we commend Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the other organizations that are working to remove fishing gear from the Upper Gulf of California.”
“Deliberately killing vaquita”
“The vaquita is not going to be saved by a shrimp boycott,” Watson opined. “In fact, it has made things worse. Fishermen are now talking about deliberately killing vaquita because they now think the extinction of the vaquita will take the pressure off them.
“The cause of the diminishment of the vaquita population,” Watson reminded, “are gill nets set for totoaba fish by poachers. The solution is to stop the poachers and to remove the nets. The only thing this ill-conceived shrimp boycott is doing is recruiting allies for the poachers by angering legal fishermen.
“If any of our crew are injured or worse by fishermen outraged by this boycott,” Watson concluded, “these groups will have contributed to any such tragedy by their campaign to anger all the fishermen in Mexico.”
Confusing campaign language
The Boycott Mexican Shrimp campaign initiated by the Animal Welfare Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Center for Biological Diversity, according to BoycottMexicanShrimp.com, “is calling on Mexico to permanently ban all dangerous gill nets in vaquita habitat, step up enforcement, and remove illegal nets from the water.”
The campaign terminology is somewhat confusing, since the term “gill net” is usually applied to nylon nets used to catch fish, including the very large and also endangered totoaba, not to the much more densely meshed nets used to catch shrimp, typically called seines.
But the blue shrimp targeted in the Sea of Cortez are significantly larger than the white shrimp caught in the Gulf of Mexico, so are often caught with nets also used to catch fish. Before the extent of totoaba poaching came to the notice of law enforcement and wildlife conservationists in 2014, shrimpers who accidentally netted and drowned vaquita were commonly blamed for the decline of the diminutive porpoise.
Shrimpers were blamed
In 2008, for instance, the Mexican government pledged to invest $16 million in a scheme to save the vaquita by either re-outfitting shrimpers with vaquita-safe equipment, or buying them out of business entirely.
As recently as December 2014, Washington Post environment writer Darryl Fears described the major threat to vaquita as getting “caught in the gill nets of Mexican fishermen casting for large blue shrimp, a delicacy American restaurant-goers crave.”
Asserting that a gill net ban “would bring chaos to this town,” San Felipe shrimper Sunshine Rodríguez formed a “fishing self-defense group,” Fears wrote, “prepared to take measures against a “government of impositions” meant to protect vaquita.
Meanwhile the Mexican Ministry of Health repeatedly closed the shrimp, clam, and oyster fisheries due to red tides, leaving San Felipe fishers with nothing legal to catch.
March 2017 riot
Blaming enforcement of fishing regulations meant to save both the vaquita and totoaba, fishers from Golfo de Santa Clara on the night of March 8, 2017 [eight days before the boycott of Mexican shrimp was declared] “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.
That was the atmosphere prevailing when the Animal Welfare Institute, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Center for Biological Diversity declared their boycott of Mexican shrimp.
Murder exposed the racket
But as Alberto Alcantara of CNN Money explained in a December 7, 2017 feature entitled “How a black market for fish bladders in China corrupted a small town in Mexico,” the major threat to vaquita had meanwhile been discovered to be totoaba poaching, as result of a murder investigation.
Opened Alcantara, “There is a big market for the totoaba fish in China. The Mexican totoaba, a fish similar to a sea bass, has a large swim bladder that is highly coveted among Chinese elite. And the totoaba can be found only in a small area of ocean in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, near the town of San Felipe, 120 miles south of the US border.
“High demand for a commodity often breeds corruption,” Alcantara explained. “That’s what demand for the totoaba did in San Felipe. That corruption was exposed” when in June 2014 a man named Samuel Gallardo was killed in a drive-by shooting.
Switched from narcotics to totoaba trafficking
“Neighbors and local fishermen later revealed that that Gallardo had been well-connected in the powerful Sinaloa cartel,” Alcantara wrote. “But Gallardo had started a new venture. He and a handful of locals had been using their know-how in narcotics trafficking to transport totoaba bladders across the US border and eventually to China. Gallardo’s murder signaled the end of the secret.”
“After Gallardo’s murder,” Alcantara continued, “local fishermen realized they were sitting on a gold mine. Compared to narcotics, a totoaba bladder was a low-risk, high-reward product — similar in value to cocaine. The totoaba’s protected status made it illegal to fish, but the waters in San Felipe were sparsely patrolled. Authorities at border crossings in Mexico, the U.S. and China had been largely unaware of what a swim bladder looked like, and for a few years, they flowed freely. In San Felipe,” historically an extremely poor community, “the influx of money was hard to miss.”
But the totoaba poaching boom was short-lived, partly because of the scarcity of totoaba, partly because of increasing pressure on the Mexican government to save the vaquita by closing all legal fishing in known vaquita habitat, and by partnering with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to remove poachers’ nets.
ANIMALS 24-7 asked most of the listed boycott participants for comment, in light of Watson’s critique and Alcantara’s revelations, but only three responded before December 11, 2017, and several appeared to have been inactive for many years.
Besides the Animal Welfare Institute, Center for Biological Diversity, and Natural Resource Defense Council, organizations listed by BoycottMexicanShrimp.com as boycott participants include the Animal Alliance of Canada, Animals Asia Foundation, Animal Defenders International, Animal Legal Defense Fund, Animal Rights Hawaii, Annamiticus, Australians for Animals, Australia for Dolphins, BlueVoice, Born Free USA, Born Free Foundation, California Gray Whale Coalition, Campaign Whale, Centro de Consevaci & Cetacea Chile, Cetacean Society International, Cet Law, Inc., Conservation Council for Hawaii, Conservation Justice, David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation, Defenders of Wildlife, Environmental Investigation Agency, European Alliance of Rescue Centres & Sanctuaries, Fundacion Promar, Green Vegans, the Humane Society of Canada, In Defense of Animals, International Marine Mammal Project Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas, Marine Connection Morigenos, NOAH for dyrs rettigheter, No Whales in Captivity, NY4 Whales, OceanCare Oceanic Preservation Society, Ocean Future’s Society, Orcalab, Organización para la Conservación de Cetáceos, Origami Whales Project, Outraged SA Citizens Against Poaching, The Pegasus Foundation, Pettus Crowe Foundation, Peninsula Citizens for the Protection of Whales, PETA, Pro Wildlife, Ric O’Barry’s Dolphin Project, Save the Whales Again, Society for Conservation of Marine Mammals, Denmark V-log Vaquita, VIVA Vaquita, Whale & Dolphin Action Network, Whales Alive, and the Whaleman Foundation.
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Jamaka Petzak says
Captain Watson has a point, which occurred to me when I first read of the boycott. Unfortunately, in today’s complex world, things are never as simple as we would sometimes prefer them to be, especially in terms of protecting/advocating for any beleaguered group or species. Interference with/vilifying in any way, the way people make a living, is likely to produce animosity toward those doing so, no matter how valid their reasons may be.
When there were campaigns some years back aimed at stopping dancing bear exploitation, I was extremely concerned that the people from whom the bears were confiscated, many of whom have this trade as a tradition going back generations, not be denied a way to make a living that would be consistent with their culture and abilities. The group to whom I voiced this concern was quite positive in their response, stating that they would take this into consideration and explore alternatives. It is my hope that they found some that were agreeable to those giving up the bears.
It is my personal experience that boycotts don’t work, as info about them typically does not reach the consumers who are making the controversial choices; instead “preaching to the choir” of people who aren’t purchasing the product anyway.