December 3, 2023

The Mexican Navy said Tuesday it has begun a controversial plan to drop concrete blocks to the bottom of the Gulf of California to break into illegal nets that drown endangered porpoises.

There are still at least eight elusive little porpoises in the bay, also known as the Sea of ​​Cortez. It is the only place where they live, they cannot be captured and raised in captivity.

The vaquita becomes trapped and drowns in gill nets that fishermen illegally set up for the tuapa, a fish whose floating bladder is considered 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 the 110-square-mile (288-square-kilometre) “zero tolerance” zone near San Felipe, Baja California, where few remaining vaquita have been seen.

Environmentalists said Tuesday that a plan to sink 193 concrete blocks was approved without public comment, and they expressed concerns that metal hooks attached to the blocks might accumulate net debris that could continue to tangle and drown marine life.

“This is a complete surprise, because the Environmental Impact Statement was approved in record time, in six weeks. It has not been opened for public comment,” said Alex Oliveira, Mexico representative for the Center for Biological Diversity.

Mexico’s environment ministry acknowledged there was no public comment, but said it was because no one had requested any comment. The department quickly became known for signing up for government projects.

Doubts abound about the plan. It would spread one block, with a metal hook attack, every one kilometer over the Zero Tolerance Zone. It is not clear how or if any torn nets will be recovered from under the water.

“A network can get stuck on these hooks, and we don’t know, we’re talking about networks that are hundreds of meters (meters) long, so we don’t know if the network got stuck there could be weakness – Oliveira said.

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

Another expert, who asked not to be named for fear of reprisals, said the plan might discourage poachers by making them lose their nets due to obstacles.

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

In a statement announcing the plan, the Navy referred vaguely to “recovering the retained nets.” In practice, it would likely require divers to descend and manually cut nets from each of the 193 blocks every few days.

Due to the challenge of fishermen and the lucrative nature of the illegal trade in desiccated taba bags, there is also no guarantee that fishermen may not discern – either physically or using GPS – the location of the blocks and fish around them.

Last year, the Mexican government abandoned a policy of keeping fishing boats away from the “zero tolerance” zone in the upper Gulf. It then introduced a graduated scale of penalties if more than 60 fishing boats were seen in the area on multiple occasions.

Oliveira expressed his doubts. “They can’t check these lumps every day,” he said.

Earlier this year, the US filed its first trade-based environmental complaint under the US-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement, arguing that Mexico is failing to protect the species.

Mexico agreed to conduct an investigation. Under the treaty, which took effect in 2020, the complaint could lead to trade sanctions.

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