Can business policies untangle the fate of sea life?


The vaquita is a rare species of porpoise living in Mexico's Gulf of California. They were 700 strong at the end of the millennium. Today, only are 30 left, and they are on the brink of extinction. Damaging fishing in the natural habitat of this small cetacean is largely responsible for this potentially disastrous situation.

<p>The vaquita porpoise.</p>
Now, the fate of the vaquita lies in our hands. If the vaquita disappears, who will be to blame? The answer is everyone — from the government to fishermen, seafood businesses, retailers and even customers.

Policies to protect

In recent years, several legal measures have been implemented to protect the porpoise. Mexican authorities imposed a two-year ban on specific fishing equipment in the vaquita's habitat in 2015, after various attempts over the last 20 years to limit the impact of fishing.

But this has not been enough to reverse the decline, as vaquitas continue to die entangled in fishing gears. Caught up in static nets laid on the seabed by fishermen targeting shrimp and illegal operators fishing totoaba (a critically endangered fish, whose bladder is worth a fortune in China), vaquitas are still an unfortunate bycatch of indiscriminate fishing methods. 

The lack of effective implementation and enforcement of the law is largely to blame. Strict enforcement is a common challenge in developing countries, where corruption and lack of resources — such as patrol ships and harbor spaces for seized vessels  can limit authorities' ability to enforce the law and sanction rule breakers (PDF). This is also true for developed countries, where lack of political will and poor sanctioning systems limit the potential of strong laws.

What more can be done?

Businesses in the supply chain have an essential role to play. Those selling Mexican shrimp should know their products may have been fished using equipment that killed vaquitas. Putting strict conditions in place to source responsibly would have immediate impact. If all else fails, businesses could stop selling Mexican shrimp altogether, potentially avoiding significant reputational damage.

Increasingly, businesses are realizing that they should act together to set consistent standards for sourcing, as in the Sustainable Seafood Coalition. Equally important is the role of financiers that provide equity and debt finance to seafood companies around the world. They have a duty to check where their money is going.

Customers also have a huge say. Their choices can put pressure on retailers and brands to drive responsible sourcing. By asking how fish is sourced, they already are creating change. Fish guides such as the Good Fish Guide in the U.K. or Seafood Watch in the U.S. can help consumers make informed decisions on environmental sustainability. Choosing third-party certified fish also can help make positive buying choices.

Holistic approaches have knock-on positive effects

Retailers that want to source responsibly from this fishery need to make sure the seafood they buy is traceable to the boat. This also reinforces traceability laws. In the case of the vaquita, the checks made on traceability by the market can create an indirect additional pressure on fishing boats to phase out unsustainable practices, as well as intercepting illegal fish before it enters the supply chain.

Practicing and reinforcing existing legal traceability requirements also can put businesses at the centre of tackling unsustainable fishing. They can become proactive in avoiding sourcing from areas that threaten the vaquita, and can decide to engage in a Fishery Improvement Project to improve the Mexican shrimp fishery.

Clearly, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to tackle issues such as extinction. However, every available tool should be used to put pressure on fishers to ensure they avoid catching fragile species such as the vaquita. Finding answers to complex problems means using all available options. Market levers are a strong tool and businesses are starting to gather momentum to create change. In the case of the vaquita, businesses and consumers can play a decisive role to protect a species on the verge of extinction. This is our common responsibility, and we must not fail.

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