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Watching An ExtinctionKristin Nowell

Kristin Nowell
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Every time I look out at the ocean through the window of my San Felipe home I wonder: is it over? Until the scientists are able to get their hydrophones back in the ocean, there’s no way to know, for certain.  These underwater microphones filter out the distinctive ultrasonic clicks of Mexico’s vaquita porpoise, and the last time they were placed, in September 2020, clicks were heard in just a tiny area of 5 square km.  No species has fallen so far and so fast as the vaquita – 99% in less than a decade. The last attempt to count them, in the fall of 2019, yielded a total of nine, including three young.  Subsequently, in March 2020, a video surfaced of a dead adult entangled in a fishing net. 

Vaquitas enter our world only for the briefest of breaths, so shy that even when they were numerous, few fishermen noticed them.  But fishermen have entered their world in a much more substantial way, erecting an underwater maze with walls of illegal gillnets – like giant underwater tennis nets, a kilometer long and meters high.  Although not designed to catch vaquitas, they are devastatingly effective at it.  

I’m not your average American tourist getting a tan while munching on fresh jumbo shrimp or fish tacos.  As a conservationist, I know what I’m seeing, and it’s impossible to delight in the view of the turquoise sun-sparkled Sea of Cortez, the little white dots of fishing skiffs, the play of their spotlights over the moonlit water at night.  They’re not supposed to be there.  They’re in the “Zero Tolerance Area” of the Vaquita Refuge – a small slice, 12 x 24 km, which is the only part of the Refuge where the animals have been detected since 2018.  It’s protected on paper as a no-entry zone.  At its closest point it’s just 7 km offshore, less than 15 minutes by boat.  With my whale-watching binoculars, I count the number of fishing boats in the day and lights at night and send the data to the vaquita scientists in Ensenada, sharing the agony of knowing what’s happening at the surface but not underneath.  We send them to the people with power and influence, far away in Mexico City, Washington DC, Geneva.  The idea is that the pressure will grow enough to overcome the combination of factors which have rendered local authorities ineffective: lack of motivation, resources, integrity, courage? – lack of authority, essentially.  

I have sympathy for them; it’s not an easy job.  Some of those fishing skiffs have not only prohibited gillnets but also automatic weapons aboard.  When confronted, they fight back.  They’ve driven out the otherwise indomitable Sea Shepherds (the international group known for standing up to whalers), whose ships had withstood so many attacks during their years-long mission (Operation Milagro) to pull illegal nets out of vaquita waters.  There are plenty of disturbing videos online of their being surrounded by dozens of fishing skiffs, the men aboard hurling invective, Molotov cocktails, stones and lead sinkers.  There is a party atmosphere among the attackers; more come speeding over to join in the fun.  Armed Mexican soldiers aboard attempt to protect the crew but do not use their weapons, constrained by the law which allows deadly force only in life-threatening situations.

The last video in the Milagro series, December 31 2020,  is of a tragic accident, entirely foreseeable and long dreaded.  A  fishing boat cuts aggressive cookies in front of the Sea Shepherd ship, which has pulled a net and is attempting to leave the fracas, and it is struck and split in two when its path intersects that of the larger ship which was unable to turn away in time.  Sea Shepherds retrieved the gravely injured men from the water, treated them onboard, and were harassed the whole way back to port.  When they arrived, a crowd was waiting, and they torched the port – luckily not its giant fuel tank, but offices, cars, trucks, and other boats were set on fire and burned to ashes, including a 2.5 million dollar armed Navy Interceptor speedboat.  A soldier aboard was also hurt.  Two months after the incident no one has been arrested despite the plethora of rioters’ selfies posted online.   Sea Shepherds sailed away to safety, and there is massive political pressure to prevent their return.  More and more people are  persuaded that a completely contradictory narrative unfolds in the 15 second video: not a risky maneuver by riled-up fishermen which cost them their lives, but a foreign ship deliberately ramming Mexicans who have the right to be there, in internal Mexican waters.  

The port rioters were mostly not ordinary fishermen, insisting on using gillnets in the waters close to home because that’s what they’ve always done and have suffered few consequences for continuing to do so.  The mob was made up of people linked to six men who were helicoptered out in the middle of the night last November in a Navy Special Forces operation carried out with total secrecy: they are now in prison awaiting trial for organized environmental crime.  They are being charged with masterminding a huge illegal trade to China – the maws or swim bladders of the massive totoaba fish, as described in a recent Writers Rebel video by Mexican poet and cetacean champion Homero Aridjis.  A big totoaba maw is worth over a thousand dollars to a local, more than a boatload of shrimp.  While any gillnet can catch a vaquita, those used for totoaba are particularly big and numerous, designed to catch dozens of fish at a time during their migration when they concentrate here to spawn.  Researchers estimate 30,000 fish are poached in a season.  The men, mostly young, who do the poaching drive around the town’s close-set sandy streets in sports cars and fancy trucks with blacked out windows.  It’s not like it’s not obvious.

But the way to stop China’s demand is less obvious, unfortunately.  There is a huge legal trade in the maws of more common fish species, mostly going to southern China, to make soup.   Connoisseurs seek out totoaba maw because of its large size and unique resemblance to a native fish already driven to extinction by the trade.  It’s mostly sold underground, by word of mouth.  Targeting the Chinese traffickers in Mexico and US who partnered with the Mexican masterminds would be an efficient way to break a critical link in the trade chain, but so far it’s not happening, despite intrepid intelligence-gathering by Earth League International, which sends in ethnic Chinese ex-cops posing as buyers and films everything on hidden camera.  Others are pushing a strategy of if-you-can’t-beat-them-join-them: Heirs to the Walmart fortune are breeding totoabas in a Baja fish farm and seeking international permission to sell China legal totoaba bladders.  But up until the coronavirus epidemic, China was breeding huge numbers of all kinds of exotic species, and yet was and is still the main destination for internationally poached wildlife.  With a market as big as China, a buyer can always be found.

The solution is breath-takingly simple: a few hundred fishermen need to be trained and supported to change to the kind of fishing gear my friends are proving is profitable and vaquita-safe.  Meanwhile, the Mexican authorities need to make zero tolerance a reality with an adequate number of patrol boats and consequences back on land for any obstreperous resistance at sea.  A wider net should be cast to bring in the totoaba poaching and business associates of the jailed traffickers.  Gillnet removal operations need to be re-started at once, to clear the area for the scientists to get their hydrophones back in the water and keep tabs on what is hopefully, still, a tiny population with a reproductive spark of life.  If it’s not already too late, rescuing the vaquita from the brink of extinction is not Mission Impossible; protecting this small patch of sea should be eminently achievable, but it’s a race against time.

Call to Action: If you eat seafood, take care that it is certified as sustainably caught: pledge to boycott Mexican shrimp until vaquitas are adequately protected.  Show your support for vaquitas by visiting San Felipe and set an example for eco-tourism; let the locals know it’s not just about margaritas and off-road racing.  C&G Glamping offers safe and unique accommodations, gourmet dining, and custom-arranged boat tours of the Vaquita Refuge and the local totoaba breeding farm (they’ll be happy to provide advice on how to get to San Felipe, since there are no direct flights).  Support the organizations which are working desperately to save the vaquita:  Cetacean Action Treasury supports local Mexican NGOs including Pesca ABC and Museo de Ballena (the Whale Museum);  Earth League International investigates ethnic Chinese traffickers and channels their finding to law enforcement professionals; and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society urgently needs your support to re-start its net removal campaign (you can also volunteer for them). Learn more by watching National Geographic’s eco-thriller Sea of Shadows, Wild Lens’ Souls of the Vermilion Sea, and the vaquita expert lectures at Tumacoc Hill (Operation Milagro, Vanishing Vaquita, and Stories from the Field).

Kristin Nowell has spent 30 years in international wildlife conservation, focusing on big cats and the illegal Chinese wildlife trade. In 2019 she unexpectedly inherited a small house in San Felipe, Baja California, and since then has been fully immersed in saving the vaquita.  She is Executive Director of Cetacean Action Treasury, which raises funds for vaquita-safe fishing gear, net removal, and enforcement studies.