Once again we have returned to the Upper Gulf of California for our third expedition to capture the beauty of the area and the complexity of the vaquita’s story. Our crew this time round is Brenda Razo (producer), Joey Leibrecht (senior editor), and Sean Bogle (director). Since our arrival in Mexico, we have been focused on the diverse views of local fishermen that have been heavily impacted by Mexico’s two year gill-net ban.
Our first stop took us to San Diego where we spoke with Catalina López-Sagástegui who is a Scholar in Resident at UC MEXUS with a background in marine biodiversity and conservation. Ms. Lopez facilitates the interactions between government officials, NGO’s, local communities and fishermen on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. She has been an integral part in the development of the buy-out program that is designed to compensate fishermen during the gillnet ban in the Upper Gulf. She explained to us the difficulties of finding common ground amongst the fishing communities and devising solutions that coincide with alternative fishing practices. We discovered that this delicate balance was quite a sensitive issue as we spoke to fishermen in the Upper Gulf.
From San Diego we ventured to Golfo de Santa Clara, which is very small fishing town in the northeast corner of the gulf. The tempo of this town is quite stagnate due the the gillnet ban, harboring a mix bad of feelings in the community. Although all the fishermen would prefer to be out on the water fishing, their pangas lie on the sand lifeless. The more we converse with fishermen, the more we hear about their frustrations concerning the buy-out program and the entire vaquita conservation effort.
There are many tiers to the buy-out program issue that raise a lot of concerns. Some fishermen are indeed being compensated and are somewhat satisfied with the amount, but there are also some fishermen that are not being compensated that should be and others that are being compensated that shouldn’t. This situation has fishermen agitated with tensions not only within the each fishing community, but also between each fishing town along the coast of the Gulf of California. Many fishermen request that the compensation program should be restructured as they see many discrepancies in the program.
In addition to trying to understand the complex results of the the buy-out program, the development and testing of alternative fishing gear has been taking place in Santa Clara. Prior to our arrival the trawl nets used to catch shrimp had been tested concluding with poor results. The varied size selection and quality of shrimp caught with these alternative nets were not suitable for markets due to the small size and missing tails. During our visit, the testing of alternative fishing gear came to a temporary halt due to poor weather conditions. However we had the privilege of being invited for an exclusive demonstration of the most recent prototype of trawl net used to catch fin fish. We were escorted by the leader of the Golfo de Santa Clara fishing cooperative Carlos Tirado and Head of the Department of Methods and Fishing Vessel for INAPESCA Daniel Aguilar. Fishermen and INAPESCA are collaborating to improve the design of the new alternative gear, but the process can be slow and somewhat aggravating as fishermen are desperate to make money to support their families.
In the midst of all this, the illegal fishing for totoaba continues. We have heard from several sources within Santa Clara that pangas are going out at night to fish for totoaba so that they’re illegal activities won’t be discovered. The totoaba is listed as a critically endangered species and is protected. Also, the use of gillnets in the Biosphere Reserve is illegal under the two year ban and there is absolutely no fishing permitted in the Vaquita Refuge. Despite these regulations, some fishermen proceed to fish for totoaba as there is a significant amount of money to be made from the swim bladders. Fishermen that are cooperating with all the regulations during the gillnet ban say that there needs to be more strict enforcement. Without strong enforcement to go along with these regulations, they serve little benefit to either the totoaba or the vaquita.
One strategy that has been implemented is the use of GPS trackers that are distributed to fishermen. This Citizen Science Program is supervised by Josue Montanez who is a member of the GC Marine Program. The purpose of this program is to create transparency and establish trust with the local fishermen as well as gather additional data to better understand the performance of the alternative fishing gear.
As you can see everyone is being affected by the gillnet ban and the solution is not clear. As with any complicated issue there will always be kinks. The pressing question on everyone’s mind is this: Does the vaquita have enough time for these kinks to be ironed out?
Tags: Citizen Science Program, endangered vaquita, GC Marine Program, INAPESCA, Puerto Penasco, Santa Clara, Souls of the Vermilion Sea, totoaba swim bladder, Vaquita, vaquita conservation, vaquita documentary, vaquita film