Mexico's vaquita porpoise on the brink as illegal fishing bites

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SAN FELIPE, Mexico, April 5 (Reuters) - Three months after the Mexican government and a non-profit group launched a new campaign to save the vaquita porpoise, there has been little improvement in the marine mammal's chances of avoiding extinction, experts and local residents say.

In January, the Mexican Navy and NGO Sea Shepherd began "Operation Miracle" to protect the vaquita's reserve in the Sea of Cortes in northern Mexico the hope of saving the world's smallest cetacean, of which only handful are left in existence.

With prominent backers such as Hollywood star Leonardo DiCaprio and Mexico's richest man, Carlos Slim, the vaquita has become a symbol of global efforts to reverse the effects of overfishing and humanity's impact on nature.

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But hopes among environmentalists and residents that those efforts are likely to help the porpoise are fading due to illegal fishing in the so-called refuge Zero Tolerance Area (ZTA) where the remaining vaquita is believed to live.

Zak Smith, a director of NGO Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said there was always a "good story" to be told about what was being done for the vaquita. "And then as soon as the cameras go away or the interest of the parties fades, all of those efforts go back to where they were," he observed.

In the village of San Felipe in Baja California state, livelihoods have depended on fishing for generations. But climate change and the loss of local species has prompted debate about how to make fishing in the area sustainable.

"Nothing has been done that really leads to a solution," said Capitan Cometa, a 49-year-old fisherman who did not want to reveal his name. He urged the government, activists and local residents to work more closely to raise awareness.

Vaquitas often become entangled and die in fishing nets to catch shrimp, totoaba - a large fish in demand in China for its swim bladder - and other finfish.

Biologists estimate between only six and 20 vaquitas were left in 2018, and say more die each year in nets than are born.

Last September two vaquita babies were found, a hopeful sign the species is breeding, said Pritam Singh of Sea Shepherd.

However, scientists are concerned about the presence of illegal fishermen in the area, underscoring that the vaquita's survival hinges on being able to avoid getting trapped in nets.

"Sea Shepherd ... is saying there has been a significant improvement in their work with the Navy since January of 2022," said DJ Schubert, wildlife biologist for the Animal Welfare Institute.

"The problem is ... as long as there is still illegal fishing, it does not help the vaquita. They have to stop illegal fishing completely and permanently in order for the vaquita to have a chance of recovery," he added.

To prevent illegal fishing, fishermen are meant to pass a government inspection before taking to the water. But when Reuters visited the site, fishermen could be seen entering the sea in places where they could avoid inspection.

Martin Corral, a 57-year-old fisherman, said only 10% of fishermen in the area have permission to fish.

"It affects the ecology, it affects us, because we have to fish much more, because they make the product cheaper," he said.

The government did not respond to requests for comment about how the fishing was policed and apparent breaches of the law.

When asked about illegal fishing that evaded inspection, Admiral Luis Javier Robinson, who is overseeing the operation, said the departure points for fishermen on the Sea of Cortes were established by mutual consent with the authorities.

"The spaces must be respected both by the authorities, and by the population, which are the fishermen," he said.

(This story has been refiled to fix pronoun in paragraph 13)

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Reporting by Carolina Pulice; Editing by Sandra Maler

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