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The intensive single-species, market-based conservation program for the vaquita follows decades of ecological change associated with reduced freshwater inputs from the Colorado River delta and 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. Such questions extend more generally to the growing number of cases worldwide where conservation management underscores the use of market-base conservation that also focuses resources and attention on endangered and charismatic single-species approaches within highly fluid, dynamic and multiple-use coastal contexts. Will contested and uncertain conservation efforts 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?


Fishing in the Upper Gulf has historically been the most important source of livelihood for the indigenous Cucapá and for mestizo populations. Starting in the 1920s, seasonal fishing camps were established in sparsely-settled areas for the exploitation of various species for export to developing U.S. and Asian markets. Although fishing has always been highly diversified, early commercial efforts concentrated on the totoaba fishery and the swim bladder was sold to Chinese restaurants in Mexicali, Los Angeles and San Francisco. As road access across the U.S.-Mexico border improved, some of these camps developed into permanent towns. From the 1950s to the mid-1990s tropical shrimp (Penaeus sp.) became the main commercial fishery exploited by a large industrialized fleet and mostly local artisanal fishers. Fishing communities in the Upper Gulf have seen successive waves of economic restructuring and fishery and conservation policies that have left them with reduced marine access and increasingly precarious livelihoods.

Fishing for subsistence and consumption has always been as important. Fish and shrimp have always been the basis of a rich and diverse diet. A fishers’ catch varies with the season and part of it is always brought home to feed the family; oftentimes wives and daughters fillet, process and sell some of that catch to supplement household income; kinship and friendship ties are strengthened when fish or shrimp are bartered, brought as gifts to relatives and friends, shared in ceremonies and celebrations, and pooled to be shared with the less fortunate, including fishers who have suffered accidents and can no longer work. Today, communities see this century-old fishing tradition dwindling as vaquita conservation efforts persist on ignoring local historical rights to and knowledge about marine resources.


Prior to its impoundment, the Colorado River poured around 17 billion m³ of fresh water into the Gulf of California, with probably great year to year variation, and the delta covered almost 8,000 km² supporting wildlife, plant life, and diverse human populations. The river through the delta began to dry when Hoover Dam filled in the early 1940s. Parker and Davis were completed in 1938 and 1950. The Mexico treaty of 1944 apportioned 1.5 million acre feet of the river's annual flow to Mexico and the Morelos Dam in Mexico was completed in the late 1940s to divert its share of the Colorado to the farms of the Mexicali Valley. When Glen Canyon Dam, constructed in the 1960s, filled in the early 1980s, flow to the delta virtually ceased.


Today the river supplies water to over 30 million people in the western states of the U.S. That water also goes to the city of Mexicali, which has about 1 million people and serves farmers in the Mexicali valley, one of Mexico’s most productive agricultural regions. The only water that sporadically reaches the delta is highly polluted salty agricultural runoff.  Although there are conflicting views as to the relationship between the river, the delta, and the see, most ecologists and practically every fisherman in the upper gulf insist that decline in freshwater inputs has had a substantial and adverse effect on the health of the sea (see McGuire 1997).


Established 1993, the “Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve” marked the beginning of a series of increasingly restrictive regulatory interventions that would eventually result in a complete ban on fishing. The objectives of the reserve were to conserve the desert, delta, and upper Gulf ecosystems; recuperate and preserve the region’s flora and fauna including the protection of the totoaba, the vaquita, and the desert pupfish; and to regulate fishing as well as promote alternative economic activities to improve the resident’s quality of life.


One of the first measures was to close the area to offshore fishing vessels, mostly local shrimp trawlers and those from other parts of the Gulf. Conservation efforts ramped up in 2005 with the creation of the Vaquita Protected Area, which banned fishing in a polygon covering 1,263.87 km². In 2008 the Mexican government, with the support of US and Canadian governments, and international conservation groups, launched the PACE-Vaquita program.  The program involved the provision of financial compensation through a US$13.5 million buyout program to local fishers in exchange for their gear and licenses with the objective of facing out the use of gillnets.


In 2015, the Diario Oficial, Mexico’s main official government publication, announced a two-year ban on all fishing in the upper Gulf of California in exchange for monetary compensation, with seabass as a short-lived exception. With the expansion of the vaquita refuge zone to almost 11,000 km², the government also greatly increased surveillance and military enforcement. The total fishing ban, which now includes seabass, is technically in its fourth year. The vaquita, however, continues its precipitous decline, going from an estimated 245 individuals in 2008 to less than 30 in 2018 and less than 15 in 2019 according to The Marine Mammal Center . In September 2019, fishermen were allowed to participate in the shrimp season, however, the threat of an international fishing embargo on Mexico has dried demand from the US market, traditionally the most important one.

A Century Old Tradition
Colorado River and Delta
Gradual Closure of Fisheries
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