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.