Vaquita – Last Chance for the Desert Porpoise

Big expectations for the 2010 shrimp season.

A piece by Catalina Lopez Sagástegui reflecting on the upcoming shrimp season in the upper gulf.

Big expectations for the 2010 shrimp season.
September 17th, 2010 by

On September 18, artisanal fishermen will head out in search of their most valuable resource: shrimp.

It will be a very interesting season since many activities will be developing simultaneously. From scientific research, to monitoring and enforcement activities, and of course fishing activities, the Upper Gulf of California will be a busy place. As always, the days leading up to the opening season are filled with excitement and huge expectations. There is shrimp to be caught and money to be made, scientific knowledge to be generated, gear to be tested and, of course, vaquitas to protect.

Saving the vaquita marina, or any species for that matter, requires an understanding of the ecosystem and the activities that are developed in it.

The region has been heavily studied before; there are plenty of oceanography studies and scientists have studied many of the different fisheries and their target species. Since the creation of the biosphere reserve, several studies on the impact of the establishment of the reserve and the refuge on local communities, including their fisheries, have been published. Studies on vaquita are numerous as well (from biology to ecology and even on bycatch). So we know a lot about many different species and issues, but we are still trying to understand how each one of them relates to the rest and how the dynamics of this ecosystem affect each one, including the vaquita marina.

Hopefully the research that is done this year will help us get closer to gaining a better understanding of the region from an ecosystem point of view. Scientists and NGOs will be working with the fishermen in gathering much needed information that will mostly help develop a fishing impact assessment (IA) for the region. Last year was the first year that the artisanal fleet was required to have one, and since the document lacked crucial information it was only approved for one year. This time around, fishermen and NGOs decided to work together in developing an IA that would meet the standards expected not only by the government, but by national and international NGOs. Also, and perhaps most importantly, an IA that will include specific actions that will allow fishermen to incorporate sustainable practices and reduce their impact on the ecosystem.

A chango "mini-trawl" net. Chris Johnson

A chango "mini-trawl" net, Santa Clara. Chris Johnson

Another research component is the development of efficient and vaquita safe fishing gear to be used instead of gillnets.

For now, research has focused on developing gear aimed at catching shrimp. However we must keep in mind that gill nets are used in other fisheries as well, so research on this field will need to expand to other fisheries soon if what we want is to eliminate vaquita’s major threat. Last year INAPESCA did research on fin fish fishing methods, but fishermen were not involved in this project and it was on much smaller scale than the shrimp fishing gear testing. These two elements (knowledge on fisheries and fishing gear) are crucial in the conservation plan for vaquita and require everyone’s collaboration.

Past experiences have taught us that, despite everyone’s good intentions, things can get tense between fishermen and scientists, especially when each other’s activities are affected during the process. Scientists are pressured to get results while fishermen look to earn a living; both activities require time and patience form both sides, so exasperation and arguments often become elements in the daily routines. It may be tough, but last year’s results are proof that arguments can be resolved and people can work together. After a rough start, gear was tested after fishermen, government and NGOs were able to come up with a plan that satisfied all those involved. The bar is set high for this year, and with even more participants involved, let us hope they all come equipped with patience and that they don’t lose sight of the objectives.

It’s encouraging to see the efforts put forth by fishermen and how they are getting involved in research activities. They have long asked for NGOs and scientist to step in and generate the knowledge needed to move forward in conservation and resource management efforts. This is an opportunity for fishermen to experience all that goes into scientific research and why “it takes forever” to get results and information. Slowly, fishermen are becoming partners in the process of generating knowledge, and scientists acknowledge the importance of their participation. Fishermen have valuable information that has been acquired by their experience out at sea and this becomes significant, especially in projects like gear development. Sharing responsibility in the search for solutions creates a sense of responsibility and ownership that will eventually lead to long-lasting conservation and management measures.

I especially look forward to seeing how the closure of specific areas for gear testing works out.

Blue Shrimp

Last year’s testing activities were occasionally interrupted when gillnets “invaded” the path of a trawling panga. This meant that testing had to stop, which kept research teams from achieving their goals and getting the necessary data. As a result, area closures were designed to eliminate competition for space between gill net fishing and trawling with the chango nets. Area closures have always been tough to implement (even with compensation), so these might generate some unrest. Fishermen have already voiced reservations about the location, dates and how the areas were chosen. It is tough enough to do the testing, so factoring these types of challenges is no easy task for the scientists. Could this be the year we finally see strong results from gear testing? I certainly hope so.

Enforcement is always a big issue with people complaining about here being too little or too much of it. PROFEPA, CONANP and CONAPESCA will have their hands full as they prepare to begin their enforcement programs. While each institution has different attributes and jurisdictions, the area to be monitored is large (the entire Biosphere Reserve, not just the vaquita refuge), and this requires huge amounts of resources including personnel, equipment, and money. While priority should be placed on endangered species like the vaquita marina or the totoaba, a comprehensive enforcement program that helps achieve conservation as well as management goals is desperately needed for the region.

I do wish to say that past efforts have given good results and things are getting better. Last year there were no reported vaquita drownings, and fishermen talked about enforcement authorities being too tough, especially in and around the vaquita refuge (I take this as an indicator of authorities doing their job). The core zone was also heavily patrolled in an effort to keep fishermen from entering and fishing inside, and a couple even got their gear confiscated for fishing illegally. But it hasn’t only been government authorities doing all the work. Fishermen increasingly push for bigger budgets in order to increase enforcement in the region. They know that by protecting marine resources they are protecting their income.

The fishing sector also has big expectations for this season.

Two pangas fishing.

Two pangas fishing.

Last year there were over 500 tons of shrimp caught in the upper gulf. With an average price of $160 pesos/kg, this translated into over $81 million pesos. Prices are expected to fluctuate between $12 and $18 dlls/kg this season, and artisanal fishermen expect buyers to approach them since trawling boats have an embargo on their shrimp and therefore it can’t be exported to the US. Shrimp from trawlers might be directed to satisfy demand from local and national markets instead. The economic importance of this resource is obvious and this fishery represents the communities’ main income. Finding a way in which the fishery and vaquita can coexist is one the biggest challenge for the region.

The region’s environmental problems are complex, and in the past five years the situation has evolved, allowing us to learn about new issues or aspects that were either not considered or were unknown. This complexity is what constantly demands an open mind and a willingness to adapt and learn from the experiences. It looks as if everyone is feeling a bit more comfortable in tackling challenges and addressing pending needs without getting overwhelmed.

Catalina Lopez with Carlos Tirado Piñeda

Catalina Lopez with Carlos Tirado Piñeda in Santa Clara.

Fishermen appear to be more involved, NGOs more proactive (as opposed to just pointing out faults and errors), and the government seems to be listening and trying to satisfy everyone’s needs. There is still so much to be done, and even though things move slowly, it is more than what was happening five years ago.

So let’s hope it’s a good season for science and fishing and that new and old working relationships are strengthened; but most importantly, let’s hope this is a good season for vaquita.

Additional Links:

  • PROFEPA- Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA – Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente), Mexico
  • CONANP – National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (COMISION NACIONAL DE ÁREAS NATURALES PROTEGIDAS), Mexico
  • CONAPESCA – National Commission of Aquaculture and Fishing (COMISIÓN NACIONAL DE ACUACULTURA Y PESCA), Mexico

About Catalina López

Catalina Lopéz Sagástegui has written 12 post in this blog.

A Scholar in Residence at UC MEXUS. She has worked with local fishermen implementing vaquita conservation programs in the Upper Gulf of California, Mexico.

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10 Oct 2010 by vanice french

thanks for the informative article. great job of covering so many aspects of what is happening in the upper gulf of california.

26 Jan 2011 by Humberto

Hi there,
you mention that there are several articles related to how the reserve affects the coastal communities, since I have an interest in the issue, could you please mail me some articles or their references? Thank you.

27 Jan 2011 by Catalina

Hi Humberto, here is a short list of interesting literature focusing on the upper gulf’s reserve and fisheries. For further reading take a look at each work’s list of references. Hope this helps.

1. Rodríguez-Quiroz, G., E. A. Aragón-Noriega, W. Valenzuela-Quiñonez y H. M. Esparza-Leal. Artisanal fisheries in the conservation zones of the Upper Gulf of California. Revista de Biología Marina y Oceanografía 45(1):89-98, abril del 2010

2. Aragón-Noriega, E. A., G. Rodríguez-Quiroz, M.A. Cisneros-Mata y A. Ortega-Rubio. Managing a protected marine area for the conservation of critically endangered vaquita (Phocoena sinus Norris, 1958) in the Upper Gulf of California. International Journal of Sustainable Development & World Ecology. Vol. 17, No. 5, October 2010, 410-416.

3. Espinoza-tenorio, A., G. Montaño-Moctezuma, I. Espejel. Ecosystem-Based Analysis of a Marine Protected Area where Fisheries and Protected Species Coexist. Environmental Management (2010) 45:739-750.

4. Valdéz-Gardea, G.C. 2007. “Soy Pescadora de Almejas…” Respuestas a la marginación en el Alto Golfo de California. El Colegio de Sonora. México. 248 pp.

5. McGuire, T. y G.C. Valdez-Gardea. Endangered Species and Precarious Lives in the Upper Gulf of California. Culture & Agriculture. Vol.19, No. 3. Fall 1997.

6. Vázquez-León, C.I. y J.L. Fermán-Almada. Evaluación del impacto socioeconómico de la Reserva de la Biosfera Alto Golfo de California y Delta del Río Colorado en la actividad pesquera ribereña de San Felipe, Baja California, México. Región y sociedad, Vol. XXII, No. 47, 2010.

19 Mar 2011 by Diana Morales Betancourt

Hi Catalina! I keep studying this issue and now I was wandering if you know where I can find the tourism proposal project/plan. I had just found a small parts of this topic in the conservation plan and management plan but nothing more.
Te quedaré inmensamente agradecida.

22 Mar 2011 by Catalina

Hola Diana,
As far as I know there hasn’t been a tourism plan per se. Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, and San Felipe in Baja California are the most developed of the three towns, so they have necessary infrastructure to receive visitors. El Golfo de Santa Clara is in need of a growth plan in order to avoid unregulated development that could potentially bring more harm than good to the town. Like you said, the PACE-Vaquita talks a little bit about tourism/ecotourism as an alternative to fishing (pg. 51), and the biosphere’s management plan should give you an idea of what is allowed and where.
You could also try looking into what each Municipal and State Governments has planned for the future in terms of tourism and development. Locally, NGOs like CEDO are doing great work with community members to develop ecotourism activities, so try their websites as well.
I’ll keep looking into this and will post any new information I can find.

Espero te ayude un poco esto. Estamos en contacto!


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