A battle in Mexican waters

Through death and injury, the most majestic of marine animals have become the most valuable tool to rid Mexican waters of the fishing gear that imperils them. Whales, dolphins and turtles are pawns in a clash between forces intent on expanding commercial fishing in Mexico’s waters and forces promoting conservation of the country’s prized fishery.

“God gave us the whales” has been the catch phrase of one organization since last summer when rescuers freed a sperm whale that had become entangled in a net in the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortes.

Nine of 10 sperm whales that became snagged in gill nets last year died, as did two blue whales and numerous sea lions, dolphins and turtles. Last month, cameras recorded rescuers cutting humpback whales from nets off Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta.

Protests have come from the public, sportfishing groups, government agencies and conservation groups such as Amigos del Mar de Cortez, Sea Watch, the Mexican Billfish Foundation and its U.S. affiliate, the Billfish Foundation. Even Mexican officials are voicing concerns.


Pleas to stop the indiscriminate killing are pouring into Mexico from conservationists and some scientists who decry the use of drift gill nets and long lines. Gill nets are big mesh screens that float in the water for days, ensnaring most anything that swims past. Some long lines measure up to two miles in length and contain hundreds of hooks.

Mexico is developing a shark-management plan and issues permits that allow use of the controversial gear in return for collecting data on sharks.

Among the questions authorities hope to answer: How much shark fishing should be allowed? Where should it be allowed? What type of gear should be used? Mexico has issued about 250 shark permits for large vessels to fish the Pacific coast and it also allows more than 4,000 skiff fishermen to take sharks. But conservationists and sportfishing groups say commercial fishermen are using the large vessels to ply the waters inside Mexico’s 50-mile exclusion zone that protects game fish in the Gulf of California. They say the shark fishery is in serious decline, though the evidence is often anecdotal. They say gill nets and long lines, by their nature, don’t distinguish from marine mammals.

Mexican authorities send mixed signals on the matter. On the one hand, Mexico’s Office of Attorney General for Natural Resources (PROFEPA) and its new fisheries commissioner, Ramon Corral Avila, have raised concerns about loopholes in the shark fishing program.


Yet, some Mexican authorities say there isn’t enough research to show how much harvest the fishery can sustain or how incidental catch affects other species.

Fisheries secretary Prisciliano Melendrez Barrios wrote in a recent letter that while nations are imposing more restrictions on gill nets and long lines, he questioned whether the practices are “devastating” to specific fisheries and he challenged critics to prove it.

Ellen Peel, president of the Billfish Foundation in Florida, said there was plenty of evidence that gill nets kill a “horrific” number of unintended species. Melendez, she said, is stuck in the past while the rest of the world moves toward more sustainable fisheries management.

Both sides agree that more study is needed. But that takes money and time, and conservationists worry that marine mammal casualties will continue in the meantime.


Some good news may be on the horizon. A temporary gill-net moratorium soon will be made law as Mexico continues to formulate a shark-management plan. The final form of that plan, how it will be enforced and whether fishermen will abide by the regulations are open questions.

Perhaps the health of the whales will provide some clues.


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