Mexican navy deploys net hooks to help vaquita harbor porpoise

MEXICO CITY (AP) — The Mexican Navy said Tuesday it has embarked on a controversial plan to drop concrete blocks at the bottom of the Gulf of California to trap illegal nets that drown the critically endangered porpoises of the vaquita marina.

Only eight of the small, elusive porpoises remain in the Gulf, otherwise known as the Sea of ​​Cortez. It is the only place they live and they cannot be caught and bred in captivity.

Vaquitas become entangled and drown in gillnets that fishermen illegally cast for totoaba, a fish whose swim bladder is a delicacy in China and sells for thousands of dollars per pound (kilogram).

The Mexican government has largely abandoned efforts to keep small fishing boats out of a 288 square kilometer “zero tolerance zone” near San Felipe, Baja California, where the few remaining vaquita have been seen.

Environmentalists said Tuesday the plan to sink 193 concrete blocks was approved without public comment, expressing concerns that the metal hooks attached to the blocks could accumulate remnants of nets that could continue to entangle and drown marine life.

“This is a total surprise, as the environmental impact statement was approved in record time, in six weeks. It was not open to public comment,” said Alex Olivera, Mexico’s representative for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Mexico’s Environment Department acknowledged there had been no public response, but said it was because no one had asked. The department is known for quickly signing off government projects.

There are many doubts about the plan. It would spread a block, attacked with a metal hook, every kilometer above the zero-tolerance zone. It is not clear how or if any jammed nets would be recovered underwater.

“These hooks can catch a net, and we don’t know, we’re talking about nets that are hundreds of yards (meters) long, so we don’t know if a net that catches on the ground might turn into a double-edged sword. and fill in vaquitas,” Olivera said.

Abandoned nets, also known as “ghost nets,” can continue to kill marine life for years.

Another expert, who declined to be named out of concerns about reprisals, said the plan could discourage illegal fishermen by making them lose their nets by snags.

But he added that it would be critical for the Navy to regularly clear jammed nets, “otherwise other species could be killed down there.”

In a statement announcing the plan, the Navy made a vague reference to “retrieving detained nets.” In practice, it would likely require divers to descend every few days and manually cut the nets from each of the 193 blocks.

Also, given the fishermen’s resistance and the lucrative nature of the illegal trade in dried totoaba bladders, there’s no guarantee that fishermen wouldn’t mark the location of the blocks and fish around them—physically or with GPS.

Last year, the Mexican government abandoned its policy of keeping fishing boats out of the “zero tolerance” zone in the upper Gulf. It then introduced a sliding scale of penalties if more than 60 fishing boats are seen in the area multiple times.

Olivera expressed her doubts. “They can’t check these blocks every day,” he said.

Earlier this year, the United States filed the first trade-related environmental complaint under the US-Mexico-Canada trade pact, arguing that Mexico is failing to protect the species.

Mexico has agreed to an investigation. Under the treaty, which came into effect in 2020, the complaint could lead to trade sanctions.

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