Mexico Lifts Ban on Fishing in Vaquita Habitat, Potentially Dooming Endangered Porpoise

Much to conservationists' dismay, Mexico has lifted a wholesale ban on fishing in the northern Gulf of California, a policy change that could represent the beginning of the end for the world's rarest marine mammal.

Endemic to the northern Gulf of California alone, the vaquita is a critically endangered species of porpoise that is known for its shy and retiring nature, according to the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). Marine biologists estimate that only about 10 of the animals remain alive as an indirect consequence of illegal fishing activity in their native habitat.

In short, "the animal's extinction is virtually assured without bold and immediate action," CBD representatives wrote in a March 2019 press release. In 2020, CBD and the Animal Welfare Institute sued the U.S. Department of the Interior for failing to impose sanctions on Mexico in response to the country's inaction on vaquita conservation.

People rally to save the vaquita.
On Wednesday, Mexico lifted a ban on fishing in the country's vaquita reserve, endangering the world's rarest marine mammal. Here, members and supporters of the Animal Welfare Institute rally to save the vaquita from extinction. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's administration stated that it would once again permit fishing in a region of the northern Gulf that was designated a fishing-free zone in 2017 in an attempt to prevent the remaining vaquitas from encountering nets, according to Mexico News Daily. The zone extends from the Colorado River delta to the city of Puerto Peñasco, according to the Associated Press

While the administration also stated that it would limit the number of fishing boats allowed to enter the zone to 60 and punish violations on a sliding scale, it is not likely to enforce these rules, the AP reported. The move was heavily criticized by wildlife advocates. In effect, the Mexican government is abandoning the vaquita to its fate, an anonymous conservation expert with knowledge of the situation told AP.

"It appears that fisheries authorities want to drive the vaquita to extinction," the expert said.

Like many other porpoises, as well as sharks and dolphins, the vaquita is vulnerable to entanglement in fishing nets, including the gill nets local fishermen deploy to harvest an endangered species of fish known as the totoaba. Prized for their swim bladders, which are considered a delicacy in China, totoaba inhabit the same waters as the vaquita. When vaquitas come into contact with gill nets, they can become trapped. Unable to come up for air, they drown.

Despite teaming up with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to discourage fishing in the fishing-free zone, the Mexican navy has not been successful. Confrontations between fishermen and authorities can turn dangerous in a heartbeat. In January, for example, fishermen hurled what Mexico News Daily described as "lead weights and Molotov cocktails" at crew members and military officials aboard the Sea Shepherd vessel the Farley Mowat. The Farley Mowat has also been attacked on a number of other occasions, the news outlet stated.