THE UPPER GULF OF CALIFORNIA, MEXICO
is the site of a longstanding dispute between local communities and global conservation.
At the center is an endangered porpoise, the vaquita marina or Phocoena sinus. Coastal communities claim historical fishing rights to productive fisheries and attribute the vaquita's demise to extreme ecosystem change in the Upper Gulf. In contrast, conservationists see fishing as the main cause of the vaquita's endangered status, and insist that saving the vaquita requires a total regional fishing ban.
Here we present the diverse and contradictory voices that constitute this conflict through a series of videos, interviews and photographs.
The Upper Gulf of California-Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve in Mexico is the site of one of the most intensive single-species conservation efforts in the Global South. In 2008, the Mexican government with the support US foundations and several international conservation groups, started the PACE-Vaquita program to prevent the extinction of the elusive porpoise known as the “vaquita marina” (Phocoena sinus). The program involves the application of economic instruments on a large scale, ranging from the permanent buyout of fishing permits and the shifting to “green” activities like eco-tourism; the prohibition of the highly efficient and selective shrimp gill net; the outright ban of all fishing activities in exchange for financial compensation to local small-scale fishers; and greatly increased surveillance and military enforcement.
The intensive single-species, market-based conservation program for the vaquita follows decades of ecological change. These changes are associated with reduced freshwater inputs from the Colorado River; the expansion of various fishing industries; economic restructuring; radical policy shifts; and fisheries related conflicts. The current vaquita effort is embedded in a history of conflict-ridden and contradictory policies, arbitrary enforcement, corruption, and limited social participation. An overview of this history is critical to understand how the vaquita conservation program is interacting with the broader socioecological system of the Upper Gulf. It also forces us to ask if contested and uncertain conservation efforts will lead to a loss of critical cultural traditions related to local fishing and environmental knowledge, as fishers are forced to abandon their fishing dependent livelihoods?
Such question extends more generally to the growing number of cases worldwide where market-based approaches to conservation that focus on endangered and charismatic single-species without paying attention to the larger ecosystem, result in loss of livelihoods, poverty and displacement of local populations.
While there is general agreement among some policy makers and vaquita conservation advocates that fishing practices are the core problem, actual empirical research on the impacts of fishing on the vaquita is scarce and did not play a significant role in the vaquita program’s design.
For the fishing communities involved, which encompass around 10,000 families, the aggressive and sweeping nature of the new regulatory regime signifies exclusion from traditional livelihoods based on marine resources; an increase in poverty, including a decline in health and nutrition; and an increase in physical, emotional and mental illness. Quite simply, fishing is the only viable economic activity in a desert region where domestic tourism is limited to Easter week and international tourism is scant and unpredictable.
For the more than 3,000 small-scale fishers whose gillnet mode of fishing has been identified by those implementing the program as the key threat to vaquita survival, the PACE-Vaquita program lacks legitimacy, as it fails to acknowledge other factors than impact the ecology of the delta and the flora and fauna that depend on it, including the vaquita.