MEXICO CITY (AP) — President Enrique Pena Nieto formally inaugurated a plan Thursday to save the critically endangered vaquita marina, the world's smallest porpoise found only in the Sea of Cortez.
There are fewer than 100 vaquitas left and the head of the World Wildlife Fund in Mexico, Omar Vidal, called the shy, elusive porpoise "an emblematic species for Mexico, the equivalent of the panda for China."
The vaquita is threatened by gillnet fishing for totoaba, a huge fish whose swim bladder is prized by chefs in China.
The new measures will prohibit gill nets in much of the upper Sea of Cortez, which is also known as the Gulf of California. Such nets are usually aimed at totoaba, but accidentally catch vaquitas.
Pena Nieto handed over keys to new patrol boats to be used by the navy to enforce the net ban. In a ceremony in the Baja California town of San Felipe, he noted that cooperation from local fishermen will be key to making the plan work. The $37 million initiative includes funds to compensate fishermen for lost income.
One of the leaders of the San Felipe fishing community, Sunshine Rodriguez Pena, pledged that "from now, we are not going to use gill nets."
"We have been fishermen all our lives, from generation to generation," Rodriguez Pena said. "That's why we are the first to support sustainability."
Authorities will use satellite tracking, drones, three naval bases and a fleet of small patrol boats to enforce the ban.
The ceremony was attended by U.S. Ambassador Anthony Wayne, and the embassy pledged support it.
"The United States has a long history of support for the Mexican government's efforts to save the vaquita and welcomes opportunities to work with Mexico to support the president's announced plan and other efforts to protect the totoaba and the vaquita marina," the embassy said in a statement.
There is already a protected reserve area around the Colorado River delta, but the new program will greatly increase the no net-fishing area southward to encompass almost all of Baja California state's coast on the gulf.
Experts agree that breeding vaquitas in captivity isn't an option because it would not be feasible to capture or hold a sufficient number. Furthermore, with so few vaquitas spread over such a wide area, catching them would risk killing off the few remaining individuals.