The vaquita marina, a porpoise endemic to Mexico’s Gulf of California, is facing extinction. After one died in a fishing net in March 2020, only 10 or fewer specimens of the species remain alive.

A silvery-colored porpoise with panda-like eyes is one of the treasures of the ocean. However, illegal fishing for another protected species, the totoaba, may put an end to the vaquita’s existence.

Before it was listed on Mexico’s endangered species list, the totoaba, a fish that can grow as large as a vaquita, was a food source.

The Mexican government then finally ended its policy of maintaining a fishing-free zone.

The new policy replaces the fishing-free “zero tolerance” zone in the upper Gulf of California with a sliding scale of punishments if more than 60 boats are spotted in the area on multiple occasions.

Given Mexico’s inability to enforce the current restrictions, which prohibit boats from entering the restricted area, the sliding-scale penalties appear to be bound to failure.

The species’ preservation involves coping with a complex web of corrupt officials, poor local fishermen who use illegal fishing gear that endangers the vaquitas, criminal groups, and outside poachers, many of whom are not poor.

According to environmentalists, the action effectively abandons the world’s most vulnerable marine mammal to gill nets, which trap and drown them. Totoaba, a fish whose swim bladder is a delicacy in China and sells for hundreds of dollars per pound (kilogram), is the target of the nets.

“We used to catch it in the 60s and 70s,” Ramón Franco Daz, president of a fishing federation in the Baja California peninsula’s seaside town of San Felipe, recalls, “Then the Chinese came with their suitcases full of dollars, and bought our consciences.”

According to Alex Olivera of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Mexico office, the rules define a sliding scale of responses to a problem that shouldn’t have happened in the first place. If 20 fishing boats or less are sighted in the restricted area, the Agriculture and Fisheries Department said it would utilize 60% of its enforcement personnel.

“This is stupid. They are waiting to count boats in an area designated as ‘zero tolerance,’ where there shouldn’t be a single boat,” Olivera said. “They are letting in dozens of boats.”

“This is the end of the concept of zero tolerance,” Olivera continued. “There is just going to be dissuasion.”

According to one conservation specialist familiar with the case who cannot be identified for fear of repercussions, the guidelines “imply not protecting the vaquita.”

“It appears that fisheries authorities want to drive the vaquita to extinction,” the expert said.

Two ships from the environmental group Sea Shepherd have collaborated with Mexican marines to remove banned fishing nets from the area, but they are routinely outmanned and attacked by fishermen who have no fear of the marines.

Two fishermen collided with a larger vessel employed by Sea Shepherd to pull out nets in January. The Farley Mowat, a Sea Shepherd vessel, was removing illegal gill nets from the Gulf of Mexico, also known as the Sea of Cortez, when a group of about a half-dozen small, open fishing boats began throwing gasoline bombs at the vessel, setting the bow and another part of the ship afire, according to Sea Shepherd.

3,000 “suripera,” or vaquita-safe nets, have also been provided by the Mexican government. However, fishermen claim that this reduces their catch by 80%.

“We’ve got to look for ways to increase that,” says Mr. Rico López from the government task force exploring sustainability in the upper Gulf. “We’re looking for alternatives, but we have to convince communities—if they’re not involved in decision-making, we won’t succeed.”