MEXICO CITY – Mexico's president, its richest man and actor Leonardo DiCaprio signed an agreement Wednesday to try to save the critically endangered vaquita porpoise.
The vaquita is native to the northern Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez, where only about two dozen remain. They are threatened largely due to unauthorized gillnets set to catch totoaba, a fish whose swim bladder is a prized delicacy in China. The illegal nets can ensnare and kill the vaquitas.
The agreement struck by President Enrique Pena Nieto, multibillionaire telecoms magnate Carlos Slim and DiCaprio sets the goal of ending gillnet use in the upper Gulf and makes permanent an earlier temporary ban.
"Mexico understands its responsibility as one of the countries with greatest biodiversity," Pena Nieto said. "That is why we have implemented an historic effort to avoid the extinction of a unique species in the world and also to protect important ecosystems."
Because illegal traders pay thousands of dollars per kilogram of the swim bladders, efforts to curb totoaba fishing have been ineffective and the number of surviving vaquitas has fallen rapidly.
Authorities say that later this year they will begin capturing and enclosing the few vaquitas that remain in a protected marine sanctuary as a last-ditch effort to save them from extinction.
Enforcement against go-fast boats used by illegal fishermen is difficult, so the memorandum also includes a prohibition on night fishing and improved entry and exit control in the vaquita reserve.
The agreement will be backed by both the Carlos Slim Foundation and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which have committed to helping fund local development and non-gillnet fishing options to try to offset the economic impact of the bans.
"This action is a critical step towards ensuring that the Gulf of California continues to be both vibrant and productive, especially for species like the critically endangered vaquita," DiCaprio said.
The foundations believe the fishing rules and tighter enforcement should help protect threatened ecosystems across the entire gulf.
The effort has garnered the support of the Mexican environmental group Pronatura Noroeste. Executive director Gustavo Danemann said his organization is "encouraged by this recent announcement which signals a renewed sense of hope that we can turn things around for the vaquita."
Other organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, Sea Shepherd and the Marisla Foundation also backed the initiative.