THE attention given to dolphins dying in tuna nets in the Eastern Tropical Pacific resulted several years ago in effective action against drift-net fishing for tuna. But that issue has tended to divert attention from the imminent extinction of a far more endangered species of marine mammal - the vaquita, a porpoise found only in the northern part of Mexico's narrow Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California.
Marine scientists agree that the vaquita is the most endangered marine mammal in the world. Recent aerial and ship-based studies indicate there may be only several hundred of the somewhat shy and elusive vaquita in existence. Jay Barlow of the Southwest Fisheries Center in San Diego says that without a "zero catch" rule, the vaquita will be extinct in "a decade or so."
Yet despite two international bans against killing the vaquita, one dating to 1975, their numbers continue to decline because of gill-net fishing. The problem is, ironically, the illegal fishing of another endangered species - the large totoaba, a delicacy that can easily be passed off in restaurants or in filet form at border customs as white sea bass. The totoaba annually spawns in shallow waters just beyond the mouth of the Colorado River, a favorite spot of the vaquita. Fishermen set nets directly in
the path of the migrating totoaba. Vaquita get caught in the nets.
For the vaquita to survive, the use of gill nets in that region must end, as must the fishing of totoaba. The Mexican government has banned seasonal gill-net fishing in north Cortez, but a Defenders of Wildlife team has clear evidence it continues.
The central problem is lax Mexican enforcement by corrupt local authorities. It took a plea from Jacques Cousteau early this spring to Mexican President Salinas to bring out Mexican Navy patrol boats. In May the first two arrests of gill-net fishers was made since the law was established in 1975.
Help for the endangered species may come from an unlikely source - the ongoing North American Free Trade Association talks. The plight of the vaquita is a fine example of why conservation should be tied to NAFTA. Given the weakness of Mexican enforcement of the gill-netting laws, high-level agreements are needed to stop the violations.
The White House and State Department should use a two-part strategy. First, get Mexico City to agree to a ban on gill netting in the vaquita range in north Cortez. The ban would have to be closely monitored.
If net fishing persists, the US must ban the import of all filets from large bony fish caught off western Mexico. White sea bass, whose filets are indistinguishable from totoaba, would have to be imported as whole fish, head and tails intact. That would eliminate whatever market incentive now exists to catch and sell the fish.
Mexican fishermen would need help. Better to provide it now than after they have fished two endangered species to extinction.