Beyond the surface

—with special guest co-author, VIVA Vaquita’s Cheryl Butner

Once you break through the surface, the Vaquita’s situation is extremely dynamic and complex. From afar, it may seem like a simple ‘problem and solution’ scenario. It is anything but.

There are a few realistic ways that the Vaquita can be saved. One is if the fishermen stop fishing and take up different careers. The other is if they continue to fish but with Vaquita-friendly fishing gear. Both haves positives and negatives, and both will be difficult to do.

There aren’t many viable career options for the people of the Gulf. You could own a shop, restaurant, or hotel, but these businesses are not going to be able to sustain a large family due to a lack of tourism. However, there is one form of tourism that could be a game-changer: ecotourism. Ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” I have received many questions about this, and some people even said they were going on one of these tours to search for Vaquitas. I am filled with hope by seeing how many people would be willing to look for the Vaquita to support the fishermen who have switched careers from exploiter to explorer, but it is unfortunately not that simple. Cheryl Butner takes a closer look:

“A permit from the Mexican government is required to enter the Vaquita refuge, generally for research or scientific purposes. It is important that tourists realize that looking for Vaquita is not like going on a couple-hour whale watch trip. The areas where Vaquita have been spotted are not close to shore, Rocas Consag, which is the “center” of the Vaquita Refuge is something like 17 miles from San Felipe, as I recall it took us 2.5+ hours just to get out to the reserve one way from San Felipe, but our boat was pretty slow. Once you are out there, chances are incredibly slim that you will see Vaquita since they are so shy of boats and so small. It is was very common for fishermen to tell me that in the 20-30-40 years they have been fishing in the area they’ve never seen a Vaquita. In theory tourists could hire a boat to cruise around the outside of the refuge, but as long as they are aware it would be more to enjoy the Sea of Cortez and maybe see some whales, sea lions, rays, but not to get their hopes up about seeing Vaquita.  The Upper Gulf of California is a fantastic place to visit with its beautiful beaches and deserts, world-famous fishing, a wide variety of watersports, wonderful people, and incredible food (but don’t order seafood caught with gillnets!).  The best ways tourists can help Vaquita are (1) travel to this region and encourage their friends and family to travel here as well, (2) talk to everyone they meet and tell them they know about the Vaquita and they want to protect it from extinction, and (3) support the businesses that support the Vaquita.

But if travelers still want to attempt to see a Vaquita, they should go to San Felipe. Puerto Peñasco is pretty far from the refuge, unless they wanted to do a multi-day boat trip. As far as size of these communities, Puerto Peñasco is the biggest and has the most services for tourists and locals. There are fancy resorts, tour companies, everything you could want. San Felipe is smaller than Puerto Peñasco but still has the main things tourists are looking for. El Golfo de Santa Clara is very small, basically a fishing village with few tourist amenities. Most tourists that go there camp on the beach in their RVs and there are a few restaurants and a couple small hotels. I’ve heard that drug smuggling is pretty prevalent in Santa Clara, although I’m sure it’s well hidden from the few tourists that go there. I was there for a day so I wasn’t there long enough to make many observations.

Tourism in that region is actually really interesting. With the American tourists being scared away for several years now because of what our media is telling them, there have been the obvious really bad consequences, like any businesses related to tourism are struggling to stay open, if they haven’t closed already. But there has been a positive side to this too, in my opinion. As an example, I’ve been going to Tijuana for over 20 years. Before all the drug wars in Mexico and economy crashing in the US, it was pretty much like you would see in the movies, a lot of gringos going down there to drink, party, pick up prostitutes, get drugs (legal and illegal), and little kids on the streets begging for money. Now that the American tourists are pretty much gone, Tijuana has really cleaned up and is actually starting to be known as a cultural and food capital. Many newspapers, blogs, etc. have written about how Tijuana is a new gourmet food destination and even some of the shows on the Food Network and Travel Channel have featured Tijuana. Plus the economy in other parts of Mexico (particularly in the big cities) was not as hard-hit as the US was, so the numbers of Mexicans traveling and vacationing in their own country is way up, which is really great. So you see some of this in the Upper Gulf towns as well, especially with more Mexicans vacationing there now than there used to be. Hopefully the number of Mexican tourists will continue to grow to help make up for the drastically reduced numbers of American tourists, which will probably stay really low for a long time.

All of this makes me wonder if, in cities like Tijuana anyway, the American tourists had more of a negative influence than a positive one. Hopefully after Mexico gets control over the drug problems and is able to overcome this unwarranted stigma of being a dangerous country, it will be able to reinvent its image and get away from being known by Americans as a wild party destination, because the country has so many diverse and incredible experiences to offer tourists. It’s already starting in Tijuana, so hopefully the positive changes will continue.

CEDO’s website has a several year old list of businesses that switched from gillnet fishing during the buy-out program. I’m not sure how many of them are still operating.  From what I’ve heard the program didn’t go well because the American tourists stopped coming right around the time a lot of these businesses were just starting out, so they pretty much lost everything. I’ve even heard that some of them may have gone back to fishing to be able to support themselves and their families, if so that would mean they are fishing illegally since many gave up their permits in the buy-out,.  And who could really blame them really if they did. They thought they were doing the right thing and ended up getting burned. It was nobody’s fault, nobody could have foreseen the tourists completely disappearing in such a short period of time.  It’s important to remember that without the fishermen’s support, saving the Vaquita will be incredibly difficult, if not impossible.  That is why everyone – the Mexican government, the local communities, the NGOs, and anyone who cares about the Vaquita – needs to work together in order to prevent its extinction.”

Cheryl and I agree that the more feasible of the two options I mentioned earlier is the switch-out, where the fishermen use alternative fishing gear. There already is the Official Norm law, which is phasing out all shrimp gillnets with Vaquita-safe trawls within the next 3 years, starting in 2013. This is, as Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho put it, “pretty damned good news.”

There is still the gaping hole of finfishing, which could be even more dangerous to the Vaquita than shrimping. The development of effective, Vaquita-safe finfish nets is absolutely mandatory within the next few years if we hope to save the desert porpoise.

So, where does this leave us?

The average person will never see a Vaquita in their lifetime. They are one of the rarest and most secretive animals on Earth. And realistically, you cannot help with things like the development of new fishing gear and assisting fishermen with career changes. But there are still ways that you can make a real difference for the Vaquita. Spreading the word to people that you think could help such as celebrities and animal lovers (or both) is a great way to start (the Post-a-day Challenge is still going on!). Next you could cook for the Vaquita, or buy a VIVA Vaquita t-shirt. Also, my book can teach you a lot more about the Vaquita, while its profits go directly to Vaquita causes.

The important thing is that you are doing something. There are endless ways to help the Vaquita, so go ahead, make a marine mammal proud today.