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Environmental threats and conservation in Mexico


Porpoises in peril

Known locally as vaquita marina (little sea cow), the 4.9 ft vaquita porpoise is the world’s smallest cetacean (a group of marine mammals that includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises). With fewer than 20 individuals remaining, it’s also the world’s most endangered marine mammal. To put that in perspective, there were over 600 individuals as recently as 1997.

A tiny vaquita porpoise peeking out of the Sea of Cortez. (Photo: Paula Olson, NOAA, Wikimedia Commons)

Vaquitas are found only in the extreme northern section of the Gulf of California, aka the Sea of Cortez – an area we explore on our epic 7-day Baja California Nature Tour. The massive recent decline is largely attributable to gill-net fishing for totoaba, a large fish whose swim bladder is considered a delicacy in China. The vaquita get caught in the nets and, unable to surface (they’re mammals, remember), they drown within minutes. Gill-net fishing has been banned in Mexico since 2015 and totoaba have been off-limits since the 1970s. But the high prices fetched by the totoaba have spawned an illegal industry that is, sadly, driven by cartels who supply subsistence fishers with the nets (a single net costs between $3,000 and $4,000) and a chance to escape the poverty cycle. Saving the vaquita (and the endangered totoaba, for that matter) requires both clamping down on illegal fishing and curbing demand in China.

While the extremely low numbers might make the vaquita seem like a lost cause, recent scientific research suggests otherwise. A genetic analysis conducted in 2020 shows that the “vaquita has survived in low numbers in its native Gulf of California for hundreds of thousands of years … The study found little sign of inbreeding or other risks often associated with small populations.”

Phil Morin, lead author of the study published in Molecular Ecology Resources had these encouraging words to say: “The species, even now, is probably perfectly capable of surviving … We can now see that genetic factors are not its downfall. There’s a very good chance it could recover fully if we can get the nets out of the water.”

Watch this 15-minute lecture by Dr Anna Hall of the Porpoise Conservation Society to learn more about vaquitas:


Diving for dollars

More encouragement for the vaquita, and Mexico’s many other marine species including turtles, whale sharks, marlin and sailfish, comes from another recent survey. In June 2021, Hakai magazine reported that Mexico’s dive industry is worth as much to the nation’s economy as its industrial and artisanal fishing industries combined. Most of our Mexico itineraries include some time spent snorkeling or SCUBA diving in seas that Jacques Cousteau described as ‘the world’s aquarium’.

A diver in Cabo Pulmo, Mexico. If managed properly, diving has potential to positively impact conservation efforts. (Photo: Pascal van de Vendel, Unsplash)

The survey, which calculated that the Mexican dive industry generates between $455 million and $725 million annually, found that “91 percent of the dive operators were small family-run businesses, serving an average of 74 tourists weekly. The other nine percent were large businesses that served an average of 1,600 tourists per week, mainly snorkelers … The kind of mass ocean tourism offered by the large businesses poses a greater risk to reefs and marine ecosystems while also offering fewer benefits to local communities.” As a certified B Corp, SA Expeditions goes to great lengths to work with small, locally-owned providers across our value chain. The snorkel and SCUBA diving excursions on our Mexico itineraries are no exception.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that not all fishing is exploitative. The gill-netters who are decimating the Sea of Cortez could learn a lot from the lobster fishers of Punta Allen on the Yucatán Peninsula, at the opposite end of the country. Since 1969, the 150 free divers of this sustainable cooperative have been earning a decent living without negatively impacting the lobster population they rely on. Not only are all juvenile lobsters and egg-bearing females returned to the water, but the cooperative has also worked together to share income in years when climate change has reduced catches for some fishers.

As lobsterman Victor Bareira says, “We know this is a goldmine and if we destroy it, we will suffer the consequences. Punta Allen is a paradise. This paradise exists because the people who live in the community are cooperating to preserve it.” This short video clip is well worth a watch:


The butterfly effect

But of course, it’s not only Mexico’s oceans which deserve our attention. Every autumn “millions, perhaps a billion,” of monarch butterflies migrate from the eastern United States to a few select locations in the oyamel fir forests of Central Mexico. After waiting out the winter in Mexico’s more temperate climes, the “butterflies begin an eight-month migration that takes them all the way to Eastern Canada and back, during which time four successive generations are born and die. How they find their way back to their overwintering site remains a mystery.”

The 56,259 ha UNESCO Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve lies within rugged forested mountains about 100 km northwest of Mexico City. According to the (unusually poetic) UNESCO listing, the butterflies “bend tree branches by their weight, fill the sky when they take flight, and make a sound like light rain with the beating of their wings.”

Or at least they used to. Eastern Monarchs have declined more than 80% in the past 20 years. Scientists estimate the size of the population by measuring how much oyamel fir forest turns orange – and the numbers are not good. Between 2020 and 2021, the amount of occupied habitat in the Mexican overwintering sites dropped a further 26% to 5.2 acres. The quasi-extinction threshold is 15 acres. The US Fish and Wildlife Service says there is an 80% chance that Eastern Monarchs will go extinct in the next 50 years. Quite something for a species which was ubiquitous when many of us were growing up.

(Sidenote: Western Monarchs – i.e., those living to the west of the Rockies – have declined by 99% in the past two decades and are virtually extinct.)

Delicate, winged royalty of Mexican forests.

By far the biggest threats to Monarchs are found in the US and Canada. Since 2000, an estimated 165 million acres (that’s the same size as the state of Texas!) of breeding habitat have been lost thanks to herbicide spraying (especially Monsanto’s Roundup) and human development. But there are also problems south of the border, where illegal logging (most of it done on a small-scale by people battling poverty) also threatens habitats. To make matters worse, in 2020 several butterfly guides suffered ‘suspicious deaths’, presumably at the hands of loggers.

What makes this even more tragic is that butterfly tourism offers arguably the clearest route out of poverty for the people of Cerro Pelón. One severely hopes that this article about the guides, hoteliers and non-profits who are making a dignified living out of butterfly tourism is not a case of too little too late. If you’d like to be a part of the solution, speak to us about visiting the butterflies on your next Mexico adventure.


The girl who cried wolf

While the hands of Mexico’s butterfly conservationists are, to a large extent, tied by the agricultural practices of their northern neighbors, the same cannot be said for conservation biologist Ximena Neri Barrios who is on a mission to bring Mexico’s gray wolves back from virtual extinction. Persecution by ranchers whittled the population down to only four individuals in the 1970s. Since then, conservation and Barrios is not stopping there. She works with ranching communities to understand how to live in symbiosis with the wolves. While Barrios doesn’t deny that the wolves attack cattle, she goes to great lengths to point out their long-term benefit to the ecosystem. And she helps farmers to implement practical solutions, such as solar-powered strobe lights which scare the wolves away from cattle where cattle are held. To preserve the wolves, she says, “you have to understand the people who live in the zone... We can’t just say that all the ranchers are bad.”

The virtually extinct Mexican grey wolf made an early appearance influencing the Aztec god Xolotl. (Photo: 15th Century Codex Fejervary-Meyer, Wikimedia Commons)



At SA Expeditions we believe that sustainable tourism has the power to make the world a better place. By traveling with us, you’re supporting local businesses and people and providing them with a dignified and sustainable livelihood which could prevent them from resorting to things like illegal logging or fishing. This article was all about Mexico, but it could just have easily been about Peru, Guatemala, Brazil, or even California.

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