‘Unprecedented’ Cuts To Mexico’s Park Service Threaten Conservation In Sonora, Arizona

By Kendal Blust
Published: Wednesday, June 24, 2020 - 7:18am
Updated: Wednesday, June 24, 2020 - 6:18pm

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vaquita mural
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
A mural of a vaquita mother and calf near the boardwalk in San Felipe, Baja California.

In the northern reaches of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, the world’s most endangered marine mammal — a small porpoise called the vaquita marina - is on the brink of extinction.

But an unprecedented 75% budget cut to Mexico’s park service — the National Commission of Protected Areas (CONANP) — could further threaten already complicated conservation efforts in the region.

"Any kind of budget cut in the environmental area is going to affect one way or another one to the vaquita," said J.P. Geoffroy, campaign manager for Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's Operation Milagro, which pulls illegal nets out the vaquita's habitat — one of Mexico's 182 natural protected areas.

vaquita refuge map
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
A map of the vaquita refuge and gillnet exclusion zone in the Sea of Cortez.

Poachers use large, illegal nets in this area to catch a huge, endangered fish called the totoaba because it's swim bladder is valuable on the black market in China. In turn, Sea Shepherd's activist crews work with Mexico’s environmental agencies to patrol the area and remove the nets before they can catch and kill the few remaining vaquita.

The urgency of the vaquita’s plight has caused international outcry, including a U.S. embargo on seafood from the region in response to Mexico's inability to stem unfettered poaching. But previous cuts to the park service budget under the current administration already did away with a program that paid legal fishermen not to use nets in the vaquita’s habitat, leading many to start fishing again last year. Now, Geoffroy said, the latest blow could leave park rangers that Sea Shepherd depends on out of a job.

"It’s important to have their presence, and all the input that they can provide, too," he said, adding that Sea Shepherd has bee working with CONANP to protect the vaquita since 2014. "They join us on board most of the time, they know the area very well, and they are the park rangers, so they are in charge of the protected area."

There has been a huge outcry across Mexico since CONANP’s budget was slashed as part of a presidential decree in late April. Current and former employees of the agency, conservation experts and citizens are using the hashtag #SalvemosCONANP, or Let's Save CONANP, to pressure the government to reconsider the sweeping cuts.

A Sonoran CONANP official declined to be interviewed for this story, citing time constraints. But many see the austerity measures as evidence that President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has turned his back on environmental protections.

"The Mexican federal government, rather than strengthening its protection of these areas, it has now cut funding to this agency at an unprecedented scale," said Juan Carlos Bravo,director of Mexico and borderlands programs for the Salt Lake City-based nonprofit Wildlands Network.

fishing boats surround Sea Shepherd ship
Courtesy of Sea Shepherd
At least 20 small fishing boats surround Sea Shepherd's ship M/V Sharpie in the vaquita refuge on March 3, 2020.

He said environmental agencies in Mexico have long been underfunded, well before the new administration took office in 2018. But the latest cuts not to CONANP and other national environmental protection agencies could be the final straw.

"It’s going to be that one last budget cut to make the agencies totally irrelevant," he said.

CONANP establishes, manages and defends 182 natural protected areas across Mexico, covering about 12% of the country’s land surface and 22 percent of its oceans, as well as more than 300 additional voluntarily protected areas. In Sonora, protected areas include the vaquita’s habitat, the stunning El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve and parts of the hugely biodiverse Sky Islands region that straddles the U.S.-Mexico border.

Already assigned its lowest budget in years, Bravo says the 75 percent reduction will mean losing park rangers, closing offices and leaving remaining staff unable to carry out field work, legal defense or species recovery, much less designate new protected areas to comply with international commitments in the face of climate change and global extinctions.

And that should matter to Arizonans.

vaquita marina
Barbara Taylor/Conanp/Sea Shepherd/Museo de la Ballena
One of six vaquita marina porpoises sighted by scientists and conservationists in Mexico's Sea of Cortez in late August and early September 2019.

"There are a lot of species like coyotes, deer, mountain lions, javelina, turtles, jaguar, bears and ocelots, that move back and forth constantly across the border," said Paulo Quadri, conservation manager for the Arizona-based nonprofit Sky Island Alliance, and a former CONANP employee. "If you lose that interconnection, that’s it. It’s game over."

Quadri said the Sky Islands in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands is one of the most diverse and ecologically important regions in the world. Wildlife here already face growing threats, including construction of the U.S. border wall. Debilitating cuts to Mexico's park service budget only compounds the problem by diminishing protections south of the border, too.

"We just won’t have that safe haven on the other side for a lot of species and that source of species that are coming from the south," he said, adding that nonprofits like the Sky Island Alliance will continue to support Mexico's protected areas. "But nonprofits can't replace the work that the government does."

That’s especially worrisome for species like the jaguar, which depends on conservation south of the border if there is any hope of reestablishing a population in Arizona.

Last year, KJZZ visited the Monte Mojino Reserve in southern Sonora, considered a critical connection point for jaguars. The 16,000-acre private reserve is inside a 230,000-acre federal protected area, and will be hit hard by the decimation of CONANP's budget, said Lydia Lozano, Mexico director for Nature and Culture International, a San-Diego-based organization that runs the reserve.

"It just means less land protected, effectively protected. And that’s not good. Because I cannot keep all the jaguars in Reserva Monte Mojino," she said. "And even if I did, one of the reasons Reserva Monte Mojino is respected is because we’re within a federal protected area. We're part of their management plan."

Reserva Monte Mojino
A jaguar caught on camera on the Reserva Monte Mojino.

Lozano said the pandemic has made clear what’s at stake if the agency is crippled by a lack of funds. Reports of poaching, logging and other illegal activity are on the rise with fewer park rangers in the field.

"People are going to start pushing the limits of the law, and this happens as it is. Within protected areas there are so many things happening. Talk to me about the vaquita marina," she said.

Weakening the park service and other environmental agencies also leaves protected areas vulnerable to exploitative industries like mining, she said, and lessens protections for environmental defenders in Mexico who already face grave threats throughout the country.

Lozano and others are hopeful that discussions among some top-level Mexican officials could Mexico will reverse course and restore CONANP’s budget. But if the agency is left without the funds to operate effectively, they said, the devastating effects to the environment will be felt well beyond Mexico's borders.

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Jaguar embroidery
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Courtesy of Ramon Ojeda
Reserva Monte Mojino.
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Map of the Monte Mojino Reserve.
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A mural of a jaguar at the Nature and Culture International Office in Alamos, Sonora.