Mexico plans to deploy three drones to monitor the Gulf of California and protect local marine wildlife from illegal fishing and trawling.
The initiative, which will launch in the coming months, aims to preserve a local species of porpoise that has become a regular victim of trawling nets, said Alejandro del Mazo, an assistant prosecutor with Mexico’s environmental protection agency.
A 2014 report by the International Vaquita Recovery Committee (CIRVA) found there are only 97 remaining Vaquitas Marinas (little sea cows) in the area; the species could face total extinction by 2018, the report warned.
A dead Vaquita Marina
Del Mazo said the drones will allow Mexican wildlife and navy officials to obtain images in real time and monitor activity in designated no-fishing zones.
“These drones have an approximate reach of 100 kilometers and will be used to alert nearby authorities,” Del Mazo told Fusion. He said the program's cost will vary depending on whether the drones are equipped with night vision or movement sensors, but estimates it will run somewhere in the neighborhood of $3 million.
A CIRVA illustration of the Vaquita refuge
Del Mazo said the drones will also help protect the Totoaba fish, whose bladder has become a soup delicacy and medicinal remedy for fertility problems in China. It's also illegal, meaning the bladders fetch a high price — upwards of $30,000 a piece on the black market. That's a tempting sum for fisherman and smugglers.
“The Asian demand for Totoaba bladder has caused trafficking to skyrocket,” De Mazo said.
Seized Totoaba fish bladders
In 2013, U.S. Customs and Border protection agents at the Calexico border crossing seized 170 Totoaba fish bladders. Authorities also found the smuggler had earned $3 million selling this product in the Chinese market. The Chinese craving for Totoaba bladders has encouraged Mexican fisherman to trawl the Gulf of California, where they unintentionally net the last of the Vaquita population.
A boat from Mexico's environment protection agency intercepts a local fisherman
“The Vaquita is the most endangered mammal on the planet,” Silvia Diaz director of ocean programs for Greenpeace Mexico told Fusion. She said the deployment of drones is a big step towards fixing the problem. However, she said more is needed to give local fishermen alternative fishing nets and economic incentives to not fish inside protected areas.
Diaz said it is difficult to predict how the dwindling population of Vaquitas will impact the Gulf of California's ecosystem, but their extinction would entail a huge loss for biodiversity.
Del Mazo hopes the drones will help. He said the government is increasingly cooperating with the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime to combat the trafficking of species. He said he is not too worried about the Totoaba fish since its population is still in the thousands, and the fish has a lifespan around 40 years. But the drones should help Mexican authorities increase wildlife protection all around, he said.
Currently only 3 percent of Mexico’s marine surface is protected. Del Mazo wants to extend that to 10 percent.