For years, U.S. and Mexican authorities and conservationists have been tirelessly working to save from extinction the rapidly dwindling population of tiny, cartoonish vaquita porpoises that swim in the Gulf of California.
Since 2011, the vaquita — the world’s smallest cetacean — have fallen victim to the illegal fish trade, collateral damage that has reduced the population from an estimated 200 in 2012 to 30.
Vaquita advocates have desperately tried nearly everything to save the creatures: government regulation, poacher patrols, U.S. military dolphins and a far-fetched, risky captivity plan.
And while the efforts are viewed by conservationists as a valiant — albeit futile — rescue mission, relations with the local fishermen responsible for decimating the porpoises have grown only more fraught.
The tension turned to violence Wednesday when what the Associated Press described as a “gang of dozens of fishermen” attacked inspectors from Mexico’s office for environmental protection in the gulf-side town of Golfo de Santa Clara, southeast of Tijuana.
The fishermen, according to the Associated Press, “overturned inspectors’ trucks, burned or destroyed 15 vehicles and patrol boats, and beat three inspectors from the office for environmental protection.”
The inspectors fled the violence, the office told the Associated Press on Thursday, but authorities plan to file criminal charges. The fishermen were also targeting employees and equipment from Mexico’s fisheries council and the commission for protected natural areas.
At issue is the government’s attempt to control net fishing for other species, which entraps the vaquita.
The interests of conservationists and local fishermen first collided about five years ago. That was when demand for the totoaba, an endangered fish species that also lives alongside the vaquita, skyrocketed in China.
The totoaba can grow up to six feet long and weigh 300 pounds, according to the Marine Mammal Center. Its swim bladder, which fills with air and allows the fish to control its buoyancy, is a delicacy in China and can be sold on the black market for thousands of dollars to those who believe the organ has healing powers.
But trading in them is illegal, and the nets used to capture totoaba — called gillnets — have turned into death traps for marine life not meant to be caught, like the vaquita.
The fishermen accused of attacking the officials Wednesday were angry, the Associated Press reported, because of a delay in the permitting process to fish corvina, which can be legally fished this time of year.
The dangerous gillnets could also be deployed from these boats, though, and would make tracking poachers that much more difficult.
The inspectors, according to the AP, said the fisherman had applied too late for their corvina permits.
To protect the vanishing vaquita, the Mexican government established a refuge in the northern Gulf of California and offered monetary compensation to fishermen who made their livelihood in that region, according to the Marine Mammal Center. In addition, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto placed an emergency two-year ban on the problematic gillnets that began in the spring of 2015.
Still, the numbers have dwindled at alarming rates, so much so that conservationists predict the world could be without vaquitas as early as 2018.
At the beginning of 2017, the U.S. Navy announced a rescue measure more extreme than all the rest: military dolphins. They’re specially trained by the U.S. Navy to find underwater dangers but could be used to track the vaquitas.
The vaquitas would be placed in captivity and then, hopefully, bred until officials can find a way to make their life in the wild safe again.
But there is no guarantee this plan will work.
They reproduce slowly, about one calf every two years, and have never been found to thrive in captivity.