MEXICO CITY — A Mexican government body met Friday to consider several proposals that would almost certainly harm the vaquita marina porpoise, the world’s most endangered marine mammal, and try to blame the porpoise’s plight on the United States.
The inter-agency group is considering lifting endangered-species protection on the totoaba, a fish whose capture often results in by-catch of vaquitas, as few as 10 of which remain. The Environment Department said the group’s recommendations won’t be made public until March 26. It had no immediate comment on the proposals.
Opening up legal fishing of totoaba — whose swim bladder is considered a delicacy in China and is worth thousands of dollars — would probably increase the deaths of vaquitas. But such a move would provide a windfall for some fishermen in Mexico.
“This agenda is focused on maintaining the status quo and abandoning the vaquita marina and returning to fishing for totoaba,” said Alex Olivera, the Mexico representative for the Center for Biological Diversity. “It is disappointing that this administration has ruined everything that had been done” in a decade-long fight to save the tiny, elusive porpoise.
The meeting, which was closed to the public, is also considering reducing the protection area for the vaquita marina in the upper Gulf of California, the only place the vaquita lives. That would open up more areas to gill nets used for totoaba and other species that trap and drown vaquitas.
The group also revived an old, discredited theory that blames the vaquitas’ decline on the lack of water flows from the U.S. through the Colorado River, which starts in the United States and empties into the Gulf, also known as the Sea of Cortez.
“It appears we are returning to the past with the discussion of the Colorado River … as a cause of the die-off of the vaquita marina,” said Olivera.
The Colorado River theory posited that a decline of fresh water from the river due to U.S. usage had increased salinity in the upper Gulf, somehow affecting the vaquita.
A scientist who is familiar with issue, but who could speak on the record for fear of antagonizing the Mexican government, called the renewed use of the theory a nationalistic ploy that had no basis in science.
“The only people who believe in this are politicians” in Mexico who “seek to cast the blame on the United States, on anything except fishing,” said the scientist.
Olivera said “the theory has been completely discredited. The scientific evidence is conclusive, that fishing nets are the main cause of the deaths of vaquitas.”
Mexico’s Environment Department previously said the drop in the number of vaquitas and the area where they have been seen in recent years justifies reducing the protection zone, which currently covers most of the upper Gulf. The zone starts around the Colorado river delta and extends south past the fishing town of San Felipe and near Puerto Peñasco.
But such a move is also an admission the tiny porpoise may never return to the entire historic range of its habitat.
Mark Stevenson, The Associated Press