Safety Net

There are only 245 vaquita left in the wild. To save the rare porpoises, the Mexican government has launched an innovative project that pays fishermen to hang up their nets.

The day Juan Ocegueda first saw a vaquita began like all the other days since he turned 11 and started fishing with his father. They sped out to sea, their fishing net balled up like a giant hairball at the bottom of their wooden boat, until the barren desert coast behind them looked like a mere sandbar jutting out of the ocean. They tossed one end of the net into the water and slowly unraveled it. Its weights clonked along the back of the boat before skipping into the water and sinking slowly out of sight. Hours later they hauled up the net, full of flapping silver fish, their scales reflecting sunlight, their mouths gasping for air.

But that day in 1978, when he was 18 years old, Ocegueda found something in his net that he’d never seen before. It was smooth and wet. Stiff and still. “It looked like a dolphin, but it was smaller,” he recalls. “I wasn’t sure what it was.” He untangled it from the net and tossed it back into the sea.

See this article's accompanying photo gallery

More than a decade passed before Ocegueda learned that he had seen a vaquita that day. In 1991, he says, a visiting environmentalist explained to him and other fishermen that this section of the upper portion of the Gulf of California is the only place in the world where this little porpoise lives. He also said their gill nets were killing it faster than it could reproduce.

Over the next two decades, the vaquita went from being a rarely seen species of no importance to upper gulf fishermen to a defining factor in their lives. In the early years the vaquita represented a threat to the only way of life they had ever known, and for many fishermen, that is still the case today. But for others the vaquita has come to represent something else entirely: an opportunity. As part of an ambitious and innovative $30 million program, the Mexican government has offered fishermen from three communities on the upper Gulf of California—who catch mostly shrimp and corvina, a popular fish—cash for helping to protect the porpoise. Fishermen can leave the industry altogether and receive a payment to start a new business. For a smaller sum, they can trade their gill nets for vaquita-safe gear. As a third option, they can commit to honor a recently created no-fishing zone. So far the program has resulted in pulling gill nets out of the water and reducing the overall small fishing fleet by 25 percent, to approximately 750 boats.

 “We aren’t where we need to be to declare a victory, but we are closer than we have ever been,” says Lorenzo Rojas, a biologist who heads the vaquita program for the Mexican government’s National Institute for Ecology. But still, while these unprecedented efforts have slowed the decline of the vaquita, its numbers continue to fall, and if fishing continues as it occurs today, Rojas says, the program has only an eight percent chance of saving the species in the next decade. The only thing that might guarantee the species’ survival is for the program to get all the nets out of the water—and soon. This is the vaquita’s best, last chance.


The vaquita became the world’s most endangered cetacean in 2006, when scientists declared the Yangtze River dolphin extinct. At just 1,500 square miles, the vaquita’s range is the most restricted of any cetacean in the world. It encompasses the northern reaches of the Gulf of California, a sliver of sea between the peninsula of Baja California and mainland Mexico. The vaquita doesn’t appear to reproduce annually, so its population grows more slowly than some other porpoises. Like all porpoises, however, it’s prone to getting tangled in gill nets and drowning. Its habitat lies in some of the richest fishing grounds of all of Mexico, where gill nets reign supreme. The vast desert surrounding the area offers few opportunities for employment on land other than tourism.

No more than five feet long, the vaquita is also the world’s smallest cetacean, and perhaps the most mysterious. It travels in small groups, is wary of boats, and when it surfaces it does so partially and rapidly, without the showy display common for dolphins (which is one reason it’s next to impossible to find a photo of a live vaquita). Sadly, most people who have ever seen this rare and elusive porpoise have seen only a dead one. Up close, its most distinguishing characteristics are the dark circles around its eyes and the dark patch around its lips, which casts the appearance of a faint and eternal smile.

Scientists don’t know how many vaquita lived in the upper gulf before the advent of gill nets because it wasn’t discovered as a new species until 1958. By then these waters had experienced a voracious totoaba gill-netting boom (and subsequent bust) that left that species teetering on the verge of extinction.

Although in 1997 there were an estimated 567 vaquitas—more than twice as many as today—Rojas wouldn’t want to go back to the way things were a decade ago. “Ten years ago many government authorities denied the vaquita existed,” Rojas says. “Many fishermen said it didn’t exist. Or they’d say if there were any, they were dying because of the lack of water flowing from the Colorado River [because of Hoover Dam]. Or they’d say it was because of pollution. Now the government has invested tens of millions to get gill nets out of the water. The change has been staggering.”

The first step came in 1993, when Mexico established a roughly 3,600-square-mile Biosphere Reserve in the upper gulf to protect the vaquita, totoaba, and other endangered or commercially important fish species. Four years later the government acknowledged that gill nets were the cause of the vaquita’s decline. But as it moved to enact policies to reduce vaquita bycatch and regulate the once-powerful fishing industry, it was met with rage and even violent clashes that stalled the efforts.

“They put a sign on the highway with a picture of the vaquita which said, ‘Do you want your children to know what it is?’ ” recalls Mario Mora, a fisherman from El Golfo de Santa Clara, one of three communities, along with San Felipe and Puerto Peñasco, affected by regulations protecting the Biosphere Reserve. “We talked about putting up a sign with a photo of a fisherman that said the same thing. We felt like we were being attacked; we were on the defensive.”

“How could the government prioritize a porpoise over human beings?” Ocegueda recalls wondering. “We felt like we had been doing the same thing our entire lives and someone was coming to tell us we couldn’t fish anymore. I wanted to kill the director of the reserve area. Fishermen are fierce, you know.”

By 2005 things took a radical turn when the Natural Resources Defense Council threatened the upper gulf’s principal seafood exporter with an international boycott on account of vaquita bycatch. It was enough to bring fishermen, environmentalists, and the government together to find a solution. With the clock ticking toward extinction, the government set out to design a program aimed at saving not only the vaquita but also the fishermen.


There are many examples around the world of fishing buyouts. Canada and the United States have offered them to Pacific salmon fishermen in the past. But these and others have been implemented to reduce overfishing of a commercial species. The vaquita buyout, whereby fishermen give their boat, equipment, and permits to the government in return for a cash payment of about $32,000, may be the only one designed to protect an endangered—and inedible—marine species instead of a commercial one.

The vaquita program has three compensation options for those who choose to continue fishing in the Biosphere Reserve. In the first, known as a “switch out,” fishermen turn in their gill nets and then continue fishing with vaquita-safe gear. Under the second option, participants receive a payment for staying out of the newly established Vaquita Refuge, a patrolled, 487-square-mile no-fishing zone within the Biosphere Reserve where the most sightings have occurred. Last, fishermen can also choose to take a payment for forgoing the use of gill nets during shrimping season and agreeing to use an experimental vaquita-safe net.

So far, according to government statistics, residents from the three communities have turned over 250 boats to the government, reducing the overall fishing fleet to roughly 750 boats. Even more gill nets were turned over as part of the switch out. Hundreds of other fishermen have taken payments for either honoring the refuge’s borders or using the experimental shrimp net.

After 25 years on the water, Mario Mora was among the first to turn over his permits, nets, boat, and motor to the government. With the money he received in exchange, he built cabins for the Mexican and American tourists who sometimes visit Santa Clara’s beaches.

Business has been slow. Santa Clara doesn’t draw many tourists outside of big holidays. Mora says there are moments when he feels nostalgia for the sea. “The fuller the net, the lighter it felt,” Mora recalls. “The euphoria of seeing all those fish lightened the load.” But then, lifting his T-shirt to reveal a long, ropelike scar running down his rounded abdomen, he also recalls the hernias, hard knocks, and close calls at sea. “I really can’t complain. I chose this; the program was completely voluntary,” he says. “I’m not getting rich with the cabins, but I’m getting by. I just have to have some patience and give it some time.”

Ocegueda hasn’t entirely given up fishing. He took a buyout on all but one of his family cooperative’s permits, set up an Internet cafe in his home, built four tourist cabins, and bought a few ATVs to rent out. The last permit, with which he took a switch out, enables his family to have one foot in the water and one on land.

In San Felipe, on the other side of the gulf, Martina Sandez convinced every member of her family fishing cooperative to turn in their permits and equipment, though she cried at the time. “We did it because we had a couple of hard years because the Vaquita Refuge closed off some of the best areas for fishing,” she says. “But we also did it to help vaquita conservation for the benefit of humanity.” The tourist cabins she opened are turning a profit, and her new restaurant is surviving. But things didn’t go as well for another family member, whose general store went out of business. Some 30 percent of the businesses that were started with buyout money have closed. Others, like a gift shop in Santa Clara that sells everything from silver jewelry to Snow White statuettes, are struggling.

One of the program’s main criticisms is its presumption that a check can turn fishermen, many of whom have only a few years of schooling, into businessmen overnight. It’s an assumption, some say, that dooms many of them to failure and increases the likelihood that they’ll return to fishing, illegally. Indeed, to date, the government has not given any of the fishermen business training, although a nonprofit did offer some limited training. Still, things are beginning to look up. The government plans to offer training to those who have gone into the tourism industry, and the nonprofit Mexican Fund for the Conservation of Nature may launch a program to provide training and support to fishermen who have taken buyouts.

But perhaps the biggest criticism of the program comes from the many fishermen and some observers who say the government isn’t doing enough to patrol the waters and prevent those who lack permits from fishing, including, they say, some fishermen who took buyouts. “Historically, we have never been able to control illegal fishing,” says Alejandro Robles, an environmentalist who has been involved with vaquita conservation since the 1980s. “It’s difficult to put in place such a sophisticated project if you cannot control illegal fishing.” The governmental offices of  Conapesca, which distributes and enforces permits, and Profepa, which patrols the protected area, say they have confiscated boats, nets, and fish.  But it’s a vast sea, and Profepa’s nine boats and plane can’t be everywhere at once. Last year the Mexican Fund for the Conservation of Nature began its own monthly flyovers of the protected area from October to July and has detected many boats fishing inside the Vaquita Refuge.


During last year’s fishing season, biologist Rojas says there were three vaquitas reported killed in gill nets. Still, Rojas remains optimistic that the species can be saved. “If I weren’t, I’d be doing something else,” he says. “But to do it we have to reduce the vaquita bycatch to zero.” The only way to do that would be to eliminate gill nets altogether. If that were to happen, Rojas says, the eight percent chance of vaquita survival in the next decade if the status quo remains would jump to 99 percent. In his opinion, the government has already invested so much taxpayer money to save the vaquita that it makes sense to go all the way.

But to ban gill nets altogether would be a surefire act of political suicide in a country like Mexico. Unless, of course, there was an effective alternative net. While there is some alternative gear being used to catch commercial species as a result of the program, there is nothing, to date, that catches the valuable blue shrimp as effectively as the gill net. For two years the government compensated a group of fishermen who use a prototype of an ecofriendly trawling net in controlled tests. (Vaquita tend to stay away from trawling nets because they are dragged behind a noisy motorboat.) 

Last year, in a sweltering, hangarlike building in the center of the village of Santa Clara, government officials presented the vaquita program opportunities to a group of nearly 100 fishermen. As audience members fanned themselves with handouts, the director of the Biosphere Reserve, Jose Campoy, explained that the compensation for abiding the Vaquita Refuge regulation had gone up, from $3,750 to $5,000. The increase came in exchange for the addition of three temporary no-fishing zones during the shrimp season in order to carry out tests with the experimental net.

When Campoy projected a map of these areas onto the white wall of the building, a handful of fishermen went wild, screaming at Campoy and cursing the program. They said they’ve had enough of no-fishing zones. But observers say they’re also angry because they know the vaquita-safe nets require more skill, time, and effort to use and are not as easy to use illegally as the gill nets. (Some fishermen use extra-long gill nets, or line multiple nets up together forming a vast and illegal barrier.) They also know that if the net proves to be a viable—if slightly less effective—alternative, the government might ban gill nets altogether. (Whether the government would be able to enforce a gill-net ban is another story. Some experts doubt it has the manpower to enforce it.)

For a second year in a row, however, the experimental net didn’t seem to work for blue shrimp, only for the less valuable brown shrimp. The net may have failed because the tests lacked a sound methodology, as Rojas says, or because the net itself doesn’t work, or both. Still, environmentalists hope the government will look to other net designs for a desperately need alternative for blue shrimp.


Despite the program’s shortcomings and the hurdles it still faces with regard to the alternative gear, some say that along the way to trying to save an endangered species, the program could potentially achieve much more. “The vaquita is a fisheries issue more than anything else,” says Richard Cudney, a marine scientist who directs the California-based Packard Foundation’s Gulf of California program. “In solving the issue of the vaquita, you also improve fishing in the upper gulf.” Historically, one fish species after another has been overfished. “The vaquita program has already triggered some important changes. We have fewer boats on the water, and there is more coordination between fisheries and environmental agencies than there has ever been before. The vaquita has been a real wakeup call.”

Former fisherman Mora sees it this way, too. “This isn’t just about the vaquita, it’s about shrimp and corvina. If we take care of the vaquita, we take care of the sea, too,” he says. “Our kids are coming up behind us. What are we going to leave them with, a sea with nothing left in it?"

And Campoy, who passed away earlier this year, believed that the fishermen of Santa Clara, San Felipe, and Puerto Peñasco have already reaped benefits from the program. “The Mexican government has invested close to $30 million in this program. We have made an exceptional exception for these fishermen,” he said. “They have been pampered.” That reality hasn’t been lost on fishermen who live outside the three communities taking part in the vaquita program. According to a member of Campoy’s team, one of those fishermen recently joked that he’d like it if they could bring a few vaquitas down to his waters.

That’s the way Ocegueda sees the vaquita, as something of a blessing. “I could have retired with nothing, but instead I left and got money,” says Ocegueda, sitting one evening on the front porch of his Internet cafe, whose front door features a poster of the vaquita. “The vaquita is saving us and we are saving the vaquita,” he says. Moments later, as the sky grew dark, a pickup truck roared up the sand street, towing a fishing boat back from the beach for the night. Ocegueda waved and watched as it passed. But he was soon distracted by the voices of neighborhood kids asking to use the Internet. He jumped up to open the door and let them in.