The Kogashira rat marina can only be found in Mexico. It is one of the most endangered marine mammals on the planet, and its survival is threatened by a deadly conflict of interest between fisheries and protection. Scientists estimate that less than a dozen may remain in the wild.
Ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau called the Cortez Sea, also known as the Gulf of California, the “Aquarium of the World.”
One of its treasures is the silver porpoise with wide panda eyes. However, due to the illegal fishing of another protected species, Totoaba, the number of days in the Kogashira rat can be counted.
Totoaba, a fish that can grow as large as the Kogashira rat, was a food source before it was listed on the endangered species list in Mexico.
“We caught it in the 1960s and 1970s,” recalls Ramon Francodias, president of the Fisheries Federation of the coastal town of San Felipe on the Baja California Peninsula. “Then the Chinese brought a suitcase full of dollars and bought our conscience.”
They arrived in search of a swim bladder for Totoaba, an organ that helps maintain the buoyancy of the fish. Although not proven in China, it is highly regarded for its perceived medicinal properties.
According to the Earth League International NGO, a 10-year-old swim bladder could sell for $ 85,000 (£ 60,000) per kilo in China. There are very few fishermen in San Felipe, but in poor communities the business is booming because of “cocaine in the sea”.
“Illegal fishermen, the criminal elements, are so strong that you can see them in illegal nets and totoaba during the day,” says Franco Diaz.
Every afternoon during the season, a stream of pickup trucks towing fishing boats regurgitates the concrete slipways of the town’s public beaches into the sea. These ships are almost unlicensed and the crew uses nets that can kill Bakita.
“Gillnetting may be hundreds of meters long and 10 meters high,” says Valeria Towns, who works with Mexican NGO Museo de la Ballena. “They will be underwater walls.”
To protect the Kogashira rat, all gill nets are banned in the upper part of the bay. However, it is also widely used by fishermen with halibut and shrimp permits. The size of the mesh depends on the catch, and the most dangerous for the Kogashira rat is the large mesh gillnet used for Totoaba.
“It’s not easy for marine mammals to free themselves from them-Bakita is captured,” says Ms Towns.
Off San Felipe, all commercial fishing within the Vaquita Protection Refuge, an area of more than 1,800 square kilometers, should be banned. Inside the shelter is a small zone of zero tolerance.
Museo de la Ballena assists a small number of fishermen interested in ending their dependence on gillnetting and sponsors fishing alternatives such as oyster farming. It is also one of the NGOs that removes gillnets from protected areas.
This is an activity that raises tensions between locals and conservationists.
December 31, 2020, One fisherman was fatally injured and the other was seriously injured After their fishing boat collided with a larger boat belonging to the international NGO Sea Shepherd, which was going to pick up gillnets.
The facts are disputed, but the result was a riot at San Felipe, where Museo’s ship was moored.
“They were going to burn our boat,” said Ms. Towns, who was at sea at the time, testing a bakita-friendly net. “When I came back, other fishermen working with this alternative gear were protecting our boat and told them. [the rioters],’This is not your enemy! Don’t burn this boat “
Museo’s ship escaped through a broken window. The Mexican Navy was not so lucky and one of its patrol vessels landed in the harbor.
There is an uneasy ceasefire now. The Navy says it will continue to patrol and remove nets from shelters. However, few NGOs are involved. Museodela Ballena was waiting for permission to resume work, and Sea Shepherd never returned to San Felipe after the incident.
“Crazy people with guns”
The immunity and absence of law enforcement agencies may explain the launch of dozens of Totoaba leaving the beaches of San Felipe and heading for shelters.
“A single authority does not stop them,” says Ramon Franco Diaz. “If you dare to approach them, they will give you a bullet. Organized crime stole the Gulf of California.”
“Before you need to see the wind and the sea,” says a former Totoaba fisherman. “Now you see a lot of crazy people with guns.”
The violent event on December 31st became an international headline and San Felipe was in the limelight.
Currently, the Mexican government is considering proposals that may satisfy fishermen, but offends conservationists worried about the precarious fate of Kogashira rats.
One is to remove the status of the endangered species of Totoaba. The other is to legalize other fishing already done in shelters.
“For example, we want to establish a variety of fishing grounds for corbina and shrimp,” says Ivan Rico Lopez, a government task force investigating the sustainability of the upper bay.
“The shelter is huge, and if the ban on fishing is respected, fishermen will just not eat. So we must act towards legalizing the fishing industry.”
The Mexican government has also distributed 3,000 “Slipella”, Bakita Safenet. However, fishermen complain that they reduce catches by 80%.
“We have to find a way to increase it,” says Rico Lopez. “We are looking for alternatives, but we need to convince the community. If the community is not involved in decision making, we will not succeed.”
Is it possible to protect this precious mammal and make sure the locals are still making a living? In San Felipe, the illegal trade in Totoaba, the menacing involvement of organized crime, and the lack of economic diversity create a toxic mixture. There is also a well-established traditional fishing culture.
Valeria Towns has warned a family of San Felipe fishermen who ignore the call to make changes to save the Kogashira rat. “I don’t think anyone buys a product from an area where people have extinct the species.”
So, after all the freedom of this Totoaba season, will she bet on Bakita who will survive until next year?
“Of course! There is always hope. Otherwise, I’m not here.”