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In April, Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California is a place of light. Nothing blocks the sun on its arc across the sky. It glares from the green water, and beams off the pale desert and buckled mountain ranges to the west. It foils wide hat brims, burns through shirts, sears the insides of nostrils. It bleaches the very air.
And on this still day, its bright fingers wring the color from several carcasses tangled in a drifting net. The MV Farley Mowat, a 34-meter ship that belongs to the environmental group Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, turned up the mess while on a special patrol for the Mexican government. Crew members watch their grim find twist in the water for three hours before a Mexican Navy boat arrives to take over. A half dozen military and environment officials mill on its foredeck and roof. Another man, his face wrapped in a camouflage bandana and his arm cradling a machine gun, stands watch in the stern—like a period at the end of a sentence of warning.
At last, two of the officials tangle their fists in the mesh.
What they heave from the sea is so dead it’s almost spectral: boluses of white flesh dangle from backbones thick as arms, and gaping jaws tear away as if attached with wet toilet paper. As the men discard rotten parts and slowly haul in the net, three fresher, silver bodies surface, revealing the carcasses’ identity: totoaba, a species of endangered fish that can grow to be the size of a large man.
In the early 1900s, totoabas were so plentiful here that they helped spawn the primary fishing communities of the Upper Gulf, including San Felipe, a sprawl of buildings and potholed roads that lines the nearshore. By 1975, though, damming on the Colorado River had irrevocably altered totoaba spawning habitat, and fishermen had nearly obliterated the species for its meat and its swim bladder, which fetched a premium for its use in Chinese medicinal soup. That year, Mexico made it illegal to catch the fish, followed soon after by international and US law. But today’s net is a hint that the trade has surged back to ravenous life. It’s not yet clear what that means for totoabas: the first survey of recovering stocks is only now underway.
What is clear is that the nets destroy much more than their intended catch. And their reappearance has made stark the fatal cracks in a longstanding effort to save another creature, one that is much harder to see, and getting more difficult to find every day: the vaquita marina.
Spanish for little cow of the sea, the vaquita marina is the world’s smallest and rarest cetacean. It is endemic to the Upper Gulf and occupies just 4,000 square kilometers of ocean, anchored by a guano-whitewashed pyramid of granite called Rocas Consag, east of San Felipe. Its plump body is gracefully tapered, reaching up to 1.5 meters, and its black-ringed eyes have drawn panda comparisons. Mexico’s chief vaquita scientist, Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, and a colleague once described the porpoise’s upturned mouth as “a haunting little smile: Mona Lisa with black lipstick.”
Despite the Upper Gulf’s relentless light, the vaquita exists almost entirely in shadow. Most of what’s understood about the animal’s life is understood from its death. The vaquita was only described as a species in the 1950s, after three skulls washed up near San Felipe. The only photographs showing the animal’s full body are of corpses. When a living vaquita does appear, it tends to be in the distance as a quick slash of dorsal fin. Unlike dolphins, the porpoise shuns motors, travels solo or in pairs, and spends little time at the surface except to breathe. “You know it’s a vaquita,” one fisherman told me, “because you don’t see it again.”
Still, the animal’s downward trend was clear enough that the Mexican government designated the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve to protect it and the totoaba in 1993. In 1997, the first reliable visual survey revealed there were fewer than 600 vaquitas.
The hard use of the once-flush Colorado River, mostly by thirsty US farmers and cities, was an obvious possible culprit. Over the past 50 years, it has seldom reached its mouth at the apogee of the Upper Gulf, starving the area of river-delivered nutrients, sediments, and fresh water. And yet, while the scientific community still debates the nature and extent of impacts on fish and other species, the Upper Gulf remains a stubbornly rich and astoundingly biodiverse environment. Powerful currents and tides churn up older nutrients deposited by the river and bring in others from the Pacific, which in turn help support clouds of plankton that sustain an intricate food web knotted with whales, sea turtles, and sharks, and pearled with numerous endemic marine species.
When scientists have examined dead vaquitas, they have consistently found them fat with fish and squid. When scientists tested their blubber, they found it relatively unburdened by the chemical contaminants that have accumulated in marine mammals elsewhere. When scientists investigated vaquitas’ lack of genetic diversity, they determined the animals had been relatively rare for a long time, suggesting that inbreeding depression wasn’t responsible for the decline.
The same year as the visual survey, the then-new International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) concluded that another beneficiary of the Gulf’s bounty posed the most immediate threat to the porpoise: the fishing industry. Independent by-catch studies analyzing data from the 1980s and ’90s showed that vaquitas drowned at unsustainable rates in the gill nets that small-scale, or artisanal, fishermen strung like curtains through the water from fiberglass boats called pangas. Because of their size, vaquitas were particularly vulnerable to large-gauge nets set for bigger fish—especially those for totoabas, which still fed a low-level black market trade. Yet vaquitas also tangled in small-gauge gill nets designed for tiny quarry like shrimp, a major economic staple for local communities, especially after the legal totoaba fishery crashed.
Nearly from the beginning, CIRVA—an ad hoc team of national and international scientists, Mexican officials, NGO representatives, and other experts—found that a complete gill net ban would be necessary to ensure that vaquitas survived in their limited range, only part of which fell inside the original reserve. In the years that followed, the Mexican government stopped short of that, but poured resources into another vaquita refuge where certain large-gauge gill nets were banned. Later, it introduced a sweeping proposal for a gill net phaseout, programs to develop vaquita-friendly gear to replace nets, and initiatives to buy out some fishermen’s permits and gear and help them shift to different work.
The conservation efforts were ambitious but troubled, and the gill net phaseout stalled. Different work isn’t necessarily easy to find in rural Mexico, and in multigenerational fishing families where many men started fishing as adolescents, continuing the practice is about identity and inertia, as well as income. While the buyouts succeeded in reducing the number of active pangas, only fishermen ready to retire or with other skills opted for them, and voluntary participation petered out quickly. Those who tried to transition to tourism businesses had to contend with the 2008 global economic recession. Meanwhile, new fishing regulations were often confusing, enforcement of restrictions and reserves was spotty at best, illegal fishing was common within reserve boundaries, and corruption was rampant. In 2005, for example, the Mexican government gave the Upper Gulf states of Baja California and Sonora US $1-million to implement vaquita conservation actions within the new refuge. Instead, local authorities spent the money elsewhere, including on new outboard motors for fishermen.
Attempts to develop vaquita-safe equipment also dragged out for years, leaving fishermen marooned without a solid alternative to nets. The National Fisheries and Aquaculture Institute focused much of its attention on a small shrimp trawl, at times testing it during the wrong season or running out of money before tests were complete. Some fishermen sabotaged efforts by stringing nets in the way. Even now the trawl’s viability remains unclear: it requires more expertise to use, can add significant fuel costs, and may catch commercial quantities of shrimp only in some areas. Linking fishermen to customers willing to pay more for a vaquita-friendly product could solve some of those problems, but the government was also slow to issue permits, continually delaying a program to switch fishermen to the trawl. By 2015, when most of the Upper Gulf’s 650 shrimp pangas were supposed to have transitioned, only a fraction had.
Still, CIRVA scientists had hoped a summer vaquita monitoring effort that expanded in 2011 would reveal that the decline was at least slowing. Instead, their network of dozens of underwater acoustic devices—which they use to estimate population trends based on vaquita vocalizations—revealed exactly the opposite. The species’ nosedive became a free fall, more than quadrupling to 34 percent annually.
Reports trickling back to the scientists explained why. Whatever gains the stuttering conservation efforts had achieved were rapidly being erased by the massive expansion of the black market totoaba fishery around 2012. According to a 2016 report published by the Environmental Investigation Agency, the price for totoaba swim bladder—known as buche in Mexico—had exploded in China, where vendors marketed it to members of a growing middle class as a replacement for the prized bladder of a nearly extinct Chinese croaker fish. Fishermen in Mexico reportedly received as much as $8,500 per kilo (a good-sized bladder might weigh 400 to 500 grams), earning buche the nickname “aquatic cocaine.” Given the payback, it’s no surprise that investigators suspect the involvement of organized crime, including drug cartels.
In April 2015, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto responded to the new threat by enacting an emergency two-year gill net ban throughout the vaquita’s range and initiating a $74-million program to compensate fishermen for lost income during that period. The Mexican Navy, the army, and local police would help environmental authorities go after poachers.
But this massive undertaking came so late in the game that its chances of success were slim, and the same issues that had undermined previous efforts continued alongside the illegal trade, increasing local frustration. Money was distributed unevenly, thanks to corruption and mismanagement, leaving many fishermen short, and those who used the shrimp trawl were paid significantly less. Because they weren’t using nets, they were technically allowed to fish, but the government still barred them from working the sea—a combination that both penalized them for helping protect the vaquita and further delayed the transition to alternative gear. A special international alternative gear committee struggled to get the government to listen to testing advice, or even issue permits for the trawl or other gear.
Meanwhile, the vaquita population fell to just 30 by the autumn of 2016.
“To be honest, the analysis every year is easier and easier,” says acoustic researcher Armando Jaramillo-Legorreta, who works with Rojas-Bracho at Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change, when I meet him in Ensenada, on Baja’s Pacific Coast. “Because you run the algorithm, and the arrow goes shwfftt.” He laughs darkly and plunges his hand downward, as if drawing a line graph of vaquita demise. “Zero. Zero. Zero.”
“Nights at anchor in the Gulf are quiet and strange,” John Steinbeck and Edward Ricketts wrote of the Gulf of California in 1941. “Whatever makes one aware that men are about is not there.”
Seventy-six years later, aboard Sea Shepherd’s 55-meter MV Sam Simon, the first part is still true. The conservation group dispatched the ship to the Upper Gulf along with the Farley Mowat to aid Mexican authorities last December. Now, it loops through the water so slowly that the orange moon seems to transcribe circles around the mast. Gulls blink in and out of the ship’s dim glow, while pelicans waddle-swim by on the swells, as herky-jerky and Cretaceous as puppet pterodactyls.
The Sam Simon crew, though, is certainly aware that there are men in the Gulf tonight.
On the bridge, indy rock music twangs through the speakers as the first mate and bosun lean over the radar console in the dark, tracking the progress of a handful of pangas. One has been stopped for several minutes, which means its occupants may be checking totoaba nets.
Outside, volunteer crew member Jack Hutton, 19, climbs onto the deck, his face lit by the smartphone clipped to a console. Hutton races drones back home in Northern Ireland and once crashed his custom model into a tree while going for an airspeed record. Now, he flies a night-vision drone over the panga to check for contraband. But the panga races away.
“All I want is some friends!” Hutton jokes as he chases them with the drone. Two of the hooded figures aboard the panga hurl whatever they can grab at the drone—bottles, lead fishing weights, fish chunks. Twice, the panga pauses out of drone range and then creeps toward its original location. The bosun, Giacomo Giorgi, a heavily tattooed former hardcore punk musician from Italy, shakes his head in disbelief: “He’s tiptoeing back like no one is watching.”
These repeated forays are just one sign of poachers’ boldness. Sam Simon captain Oona Layolle, a French citizen, and other crew members have heard pangas motor close to the Sam Simon and the Farley Mowat at night. Others have sped away with boats full of totoabas in broad daylight, despite the presence of Sea Shepherd drones.
When 34-year-old Layolle first arrived in San Felipe in a Sea Shepherd sailboat the month before Nieto’s 2015 announcement, though, the totoaba poaching was still masked by poorly regulated fishing for shrimp and other species. She had hoped to capture vaquita footage to raise awareness of its plight. Instead, she found so many gill nets strung through the refuge that she couldn’t navigate. She reached out to Rojas-Bracho—now the chair of CIRVA—and others hoping to help.
At first, the scientists kept her at a distance. Though Sea Shepherd has recently focused on fighting illegal fishing, it’s best known for its anti-whaling campaigns, some of which have resulted in ship chases and collisions. The international nonprofit has been sued for allegedly sinking its own boat as a publicity stunt and has on occasion excoriated Indigenous peoples exercising their subsistence whaling and sealing rights in North America.
Rojas-Bracho’s work was already extremely delicate politically: when he started studying vaquitas in the mid-1990s, even many Mexican government officials needed to be convinced that the species existed. And he has always been clear that vaquita conservation efforts mustn’t exclude or demonize fishermen.
But Layolle persisted, and eventually Rojas-Bracho met her for coffee. “I discovered one of the most charming, intelligent persons,” he says now. “It was nothing like the documentaries.”
Layolle also began asking people in San Felipe directly about totoabas. The poachers, she learned, were anchoring large-gauge nets—a few meters tall and some stretching around a kilometer long—to the Gulf’s murky bottom. Some of the men would take a GPS reading, and then use grappling hooks to snag the net up later, pull in any fish, and release it back to the deep.
When a dead baby humpback whale tangled in a totoaba net turned up adrift in the Gulf on Christmas 2015, Layolle approached Mexican authorities with an idea. Sea Shepherd would use its ships and the poachers’ own grappling-hook methods to beat them at their game. That program began in February 2016.
Operation Milagro—or miracle—as it’s called, is now in its third official season. The Sam Simon and Farley Mowat tick back and forth off the coast of San Felipe between Rocas Consag and a black pyramidal hill on the coast called Cerro El Machorro—fishermen’s name for juvenile totoabas—each winter and spring when the totoabas arrive in the Upper Gulf to spawn. When one of the ships snags a net with its grappling hooks, the hooks break away from its gunwales with marking buoys, and the crew lowers a small boat into the water to haul in the net. Rojas-Bracho’s lab also leads a collaboration with a group of local fishermen, Mexican environmental authorities, Sea Shepherd, and others to drag for abandoned—or ghost—nets.
So far, by Sea Shepherd’s accounting, the two projects have pulled up nearly 500 pieces of illegal fishing gear, about three-quarters of it set for totoabas. Piles of nets stacked on the Sam Simon’s back deck impregnate crew members’ clothes with a mildewy fish stench as they cut them up for recycling, to ensure they don’t end up back in the water. If officials had any doubts about the extent of illegal fishing before Operation Milagro began, they certainly don’t now.
But there’s little sign that Operation Milagro—even with the international media attention it’s garnered—has deterred poachers. “All these huge efforts are still not enough to save the vaquita,” says Layolle, who is taking a break from Sea Shepherd this fall. “It never stops. The totoaba trafficking never stops.”
According to Mexican Navy statistics, the agency has inspected thousands of boats and vehicles, and apprehended nearly 200 people since stepped-up enforcement began in 2015. But, as of this spring, there were no available reports of anyone being prosecuted. The navy often takes hours to respond to tips supplied by Sea Shepherd and others, and sometimes doesn’t show up at all. And the government only recently began adopting common-sense policies that could reduce the complications of chasing poachers on the open sea. It was just this April when it formalized a law that makes penalties stiff enough to act as deterrents. And it wasn’t until June that it adopted blanket restrictions on night fishing and boat launch locations, as well as requirements for tracking devices on small vessels. Those measures were part of an agreement to finally make the gill net ban permanent and extend the compensation program.
Meanwhile, the rogue nets have kept coming, their contents like some macabre survey of the Gulf’s storied diversity: whales, sea lions, dolphins, great white sharks, hammerheads, dozens of different kinds of fish, including hundreds of totoabas. Six vaquitas turned up dead this past season, too, half with telltale net-mesh patterns incised on their skin.
Proclamations of doom for the vaquita have been common in articles covering the species for at least a decade. But now, it seems certain that the porpoise has one last bid at survival.
This October, Mexico’s Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) plans to launch a Hail Mary that will cost more than $5-million in 2017 alone to round up as many vaquitas as possible, and hold them in captivity for as long as it takes to make their habitat safe. Scientists, veterinarians, and experts from organizations in Mexico, the United States, and other countries hope to find them by using acoustic monitors, visual observers, and trained US Navy dolphins. Then, they’ll place nets in their path, and if they can catch them, immediately disentangle them and transport them to temporary open-water enclosures in the Upper Gulf until a more permanent sanctuary can be developed. It’s risky: not all porpoise species tolerate captivity. Even if vaquitas turn out to be among those that do, little is known about what they need to thrive and breed. “We have to be incredibly rapid students of how to deal with fully captive populations and be in there for the long term,” says Barbara Taylor, lead of the US-based Southwest Fisheries Science Center’s Marine Mammal Genetics Program and a key member of CIRVA. “It’s going to be decades.”
It’s unclear how many vaquitas will be left to catch. This past spring, Jaramillo-Legorreta quietly deployed a handful of acoustic monitors a few months earlier than usual. Then, not long before vaquitas reached peak media visibility in June—with US movie star Leonardo DiCaprio and Mexico’s richest man, Carlos Slim, throwing their weight behind vaquita conservation efforts—CIRVA revealed that the creatures had all but disappeared. The monitors detected vaquitas only twice, far fewer times than anticipated. Until results are in from this summer’s full monitoring effort, “the data are hard to interpret,” Taylor says. But they “make us very worried.”
San Felipe, in April, is an oasis of activity in an otherwise silent desert. On the first weekend of the month, tourists pour into the town of 25,000 to watch tricked-out pickups and motorcycles roar through the San Felipe 250 off-road race. On the third weekend of the month, Easter weekend, still more tourists fill the beaches and the waterfront esplanade. Banda music vibrates the air, and couples lean into each other at a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe that overlooks the sea from a promontory scattered with plastic cups and silk flowers.
On the weekend between, Rafael Sánchez Gastélum’s house on the outskirts of town is a comparative island of calm. Sánchez Gastélum sits in the shade of a wooden awning, while his son Job and his brother Alejandro scoop corvinas, a type of fish, from a small cooler onto a plastic table, then deftly shear off flanks of blood-edged pinkish meat. Pickups occasionally pause on the other side of the wrought-iron fence, and Alejandro weighs out sacks of the fillets on a scale, then passes them through windows in exchange for neatly folded pesos.
The brothers are among about 50 or so San Felipe fishermen who have taken sporadic jobs helping with ghost net removal and vaquita monitoring efforts, and like many people here, both still depend heavily on fishing. At just 33, Rafael has already worked on the water for 20 years, guiding sport fishermen and pulling in shrimp, first with a gill net and, more recently, with one of the small shrimp trawls, which he drags from his panga. Members of Rafael’s fishing co-op were among those shorted by the program to compensate fishermen for lost income. And Alejandro was left out entirely, forcing him to string together other sources of income, like the corvinas he’s selling today. Typically, the species—one of the most important to the local fishing industry—is exempt from the gill net ban, because it’s caught in a purse seine, yet the fishery remained closed this year for technical reasons, leaving fishermen with even fewer options. Alejandro caught today’s fish on a line instead.
“It’s totally fucked,” Rafael says bluntly, through a translator. “The people here live from fishing … there’s no work now.”
It’s easy to see that every economic opportunity counts in San Felipe. April’s tourism boom is more exception than norm, and though the global economic recession has ebbed, abandoned houses and closed businesses are still abundant, and half-built, skeletal hotels loom along the shore. As the tensions escalated this spring with the closure of the corvina fishery and the lead-up to the permanent gill net ban, fishermen in Golfo de Santa Clara—a smaller Upper Gulf community that is almost wholly dependent on fishing—burned 15 government vehicles and patrol boats and beat some officials. And after an international coalition of NGOs began pushing a blanket Mexican shrimp boycott on vaquitas’ behalf, Sunshine Antonio Rodriguez, a co-op owner and the leader of a large local fishing federation, led a protest in San Felipe, where a panga inscribed with “Sea Shepherd” and “SEMARNAT” was burned in effigy. He also warned that hundreds of pangas would go after Sea Shepherd’s ships if they didn’t leave within five days, which landed him a restraining order.
“Did we threaten them? Yes we did,” Rodriguez explains when I meet him at his RV resort in San Felipe. “Because in a matter of speaking, all the other NGOs are threatening Mexico and the fishing industry. They’re judging all fishermen as equal. To me, that’s a declaration of war.”
Clad in a red polo shirt and an expensive-looking watch, Rodriguez—who gave up fishing to focus on other businesses years ago—ticks off a series of arguments. There’s never been proof that shrimp gill nets kill vaquitas, he says. It’s the damming of the Colorado River, he says, or chemical spills from an open-pit gold mine north of the city. He stops short of claiming that vaquitas aren’t real, but adds that he’d like to have a DNA test done. “What if it’s a malformation of a dolphin?”
None of this bodes well for vaquitas: a significant number of San Felipe residents still don’t believe they exist, and in the chaos, Rodriguez’s star has risen. People are disoriented and worried, one fisherman tells me, and in times of uncertainty, they will follow the leaders who emerge. I hear arguments like Rodriguez’s from most fishermen I talk to. It feels, in a way, like the near completion of the species’ erasure—not just from the world, but from the kind of memory that comes from direct experience. Where some older fishermen remember catching vaquitas, there are so few now that younger fishermen may never see one at all. So who can show them that Rodriguez is wrong?
And who can blame some for falling in behind him? A powerful upstream nation has robbed their gulf of its river, with undeniable impacts on the environment, and yet everyone is chasing men who tool around in boats that aren’t much more than skiffs.
Meanwhile, the totoaba trade has gone on booming practically in plain sight, while those who want to play by the rules have had little recourse to earn a decent living directly from fishing. San Felipe residents hear the fiberglass hulls of pangas clapping across the waves at night. There are stories of poachers brandishing weapons on the water and in town. Fearing for their safety, the conservation fishermen postpone their work with the ghost net program, then postpone it again. Some people notice families with big new houses, nice new cars, while others have little. When it comes to who is involved, one former fisherman tells me, “It’s obvious.”
The special gear committee recently helped force progress on testing and permitting different kinds of alternative fishing equipment—including a promising sail-powered net that may supplant the trawl. And the permanent gill net ban and DiCaprio’s and Slim’s investments should add momentum. But until those and other efforts to address deeper problems gain real traction, many worry that illegal activity will only continue to escalate. The vaquita’s decline “is a symptom of a complex, sick system,” says Rafael Ortiz-Rodriguez of the Environmental Defense Fund of Mexico, who works with Upper Gulf communities to make the corvina fishery more sustainable. “Poverty, corruption, low governance, poor fisheries management, lack of education, lack of other alternative livelihoods. It’s like when you have the flu. If you just take some medication to stop your runny nose, it’s not going to cure you from the flu.”
Back at Rafael Sánchez Gastélum’s house, I ask just how much more money can be made by fishing for totoabas rather than fishing for legal species. Before he can respond, Alejandro cuts in sounding exasperated and tired. “Look,” he says, laying one corvina fillet on the table. “Normal.” He places another fillet a few inches from the first, and then drops another fillet on top of it, and another, and another, and another, and a handful, until there are more than a dozen. “Illegal,” he says.
On April 11, my last day in San Felipe, scientists from Rojas-Bracho’s lab and their collaborators decide to launch the ghost net program without the help of fishermen, who will join up again in May, when the totoaba season has subsided. Last year, 20 pangas plied the Upper Gulf; now, on the program’s first morning out, just four slowly drag grappling hooks through the sparkling sea. Last year, in a quiet moment of waiting with the engines off, those aboard one of the pangas saw two live vaquitas. Now, we see none.
But there are more nets, always the nets. And late in the day, there is a long, telltale slick of grease on the surface of the water, leading to a whitish blob worried by gulls. As we drift nearer, it resolves into a totoaba, well over a meter long. The creature is rotten, but not so rotten that we can’t see the slash where its swim bladder used to be. The six of us aboard the boat are silent as it bobs by in the swell, close enough to touch, like some portent of a grim future. Then it slips behind us, twisting in the wake before it is again swallowed by light and water, before it becomes nothing at all.