Should we breed the vaquita in captivity?

For as long as we have known about the vaquita, gillnets have been killing more individuals than are being born. The upper Gulf of California has been a danger zone for the species ever since humans started fishing there, and unfortunately, vaquita don’t live anywhere else.

Yet.

Even though gillnets are now permanently banned in the vaquita’s range, there will still be illegal fishing if compensation and/or nighttime enforcement issues are not fixed immediately. These are indeed desperate times. So desperate, in fact, that no option is off the table when it comes to salvaging this species.

The idea of ex-situ conservation (captive breeding) for the vaquita has not been given much thought, until recently.

Here is ¡VIVA Vaquita!’s official position statement on the issue:

“The issue of possible live-captures and ex-situ conservation (generally known as captive breeding) of the vaquita has recently been much talked about and debated. This results from the 2016 CIRVA report, which for the first time, recommended evaluation of the prospects and steps needed for captive breeding of the species, as part of the conservation plan. This is a very complex issue, and there are a variety of different views within our organization on this proposal.

After detailed discussion, ¡VIVA Vaquita! has come to a consensus. Due to the undeniable fact that the current efforts to stop the decline of the species (however, well-intentioned) are simply not working, we are not opposed to evaluating and considering ex-situ conservation measures for this species. However, we emphasize that the primary focus and priority for long-term conservation of the species must be in-situ—that is protection and recovery of the species in its natural habitat. That can only happen with a permanent and complete cessation of all gillnet fishing within the species range. This is an absolute pre-requisite to any attempts to save the species, and must remain the top priority. Any work towards captive breeding efforts must not in any way decrease the focus, resources, or funding applied to maintaining and effectively enforcing the gillnet ban.”

We will not allow the vaquita to go extinct, which means if captive breeding is the only option left, we will try our best to accomplish it. There is still a long way to go in terms of determining whether or not it would be safe for the animals (some porpoise species do well in captivity), or how we would do it (underwater pen in the Gulf, tank on land, etc.), but if necessary, we could have captive vaquitas by next year. Too much later, and there may be no vaquitas left to save.

To learn more, check out these in-depth articles:

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/07/scientists-mull-risky-strategy-save-world-s-most-endangered-porpoise

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/radical-conservation/2016/jun/08/vaquita-captive-breeding-ex-situ-panda-porpoise-extinction

And listen to this interview with the always-wonderful Barb Taylor:

http://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/how-can-we-keep-the-endangered-vaquita-from-vanishing/

The gillnet ban is permanent!

The day has finally come.

Every type of gillnet is permanently banned in the vaquita’s range. There will never again be a legal gillnet in the upper Gulf of California.

Today, Presidents Obama and Peña Nieto had a meeting to discuss relations between the US and Mexico. In the press release following the meeting, it was announced that the gillnet ban would be made permanent to protect the vaquita:

“Both Presidents committed to intensify bilateral cooperation to protect the critically endangered vaquita marina porpoise, including through the following actions:

  • Mexico will make permanent a ban on the use of gillnets in all fisheries throughout the range of the vaquita in the upper Gulf of California;
  • Both countries will increase cooperation and enforcement efforts to immediately halt the illegal fishing for and illegal trade in totoaba swim bladders;
  • Both countries will redouble efforts, in collaboration with international experts, to develop alternative fishing gear to gillnets that does not result in the entanglement of vaquita and establish “vaquita-safe” fisheries; and
  • Both countries will establish and implement a long-term program to remove and permanently dispose of illegal and derelict fishing gear from vaquita habitat in the upper Gulf of California.”

You can read the entire press release here, which contains other announcements not related to the vaquita.

This is a major victory. In fact, it is probably the most important event in vaquita conservation history. We have been tirelessly working towards a permanent ban for years, and that hard work has paid off. The petition (which garnered over 96,000 signatures), International Save the Vaquita Day (which directly educated thousands of people all over the world less than two weeks ago), overwhelming news and press coverage (including a full-length 60 Minutes segment), and extensive social media awareness across every platform all played a huge part in showing the government that we truly do care about the vaquita’s existence.

However, it is not that simple. The vaquita is not saved just because of this ban. As with any law, it is only as effective as its enforcement.

Legal fishermen need to be fully compensated. Vaquita-safe nets need to be developed and implemented. Nighttime poachers needs to be stopped and punished. Totoaba swim bladder demand needs to be removed. Enforcement needs to be stronger than ever.

Here is a great article from the producers of Souls of the Vermilion Sea:

http://vaquitafilm.com/mexico-permanently-bans-gillnets-in-the-upper-gulf/

The situation in the upper Gulf fishing communities is extremely complex and therefore is very difficult to fully comprehend, let alone control. This ban will be useless if certain things are not taken care of immediately. Below is an excerpt from the article:

“Here are our questions for the Mexican Government:

To what degree will enforcement of the ban be improved? Will there be regular nighttime patrols conducted by the Navy?

Will the compensation program be extended? Will a significant effort be put forth to end the rampant corruption associated with the current compensation program?

Will fisherman in the region be provided with alternative fishing gear free of cost? Will there be a training program to teach fisherman how to use this new fishing gear?

Does this mean that the corvina fishery, which utilizes gillnets but was allowed under the current ban, will be stopped?

A permanent gillnet ban, while it seems on the surface like a giant step forward for vaquita conservation, actually has the potential to have a negative impact on the vaquita population if Mexico doesn’t truly commit to fixing the problems associated with the current ban.”

One of these problems is that because the ban on gillnet fishing has been effectively enforced, yet the compensation system is corrupt, fishermen are forced to find a new way to make money. Unfortunately, that way of making money just so happens to be nighttime totoaba poaching, which is the most dangerous fishing of all for the vaquita. This permanent ban could very well increase totoaba poaching to a more rampant level than ever before if the compensation and nighttime enforcement issues are not fixed quickly and thoroughly.

As I have always said (and probably always will say), our work to save the vaquita is not done. However, this new ban could be a turning point for the species. It shows that our hard work is paying off, and that the government really does care about the vaquita. That is a winning combination, and as long as we keep the pressure on the government to follow through with all the steps necessary to save this species, no matter how difficult, the outcome will be vaquitas swimming around safely and happily in the beautiful Gulf of California for generations to come.

Today is cause for momentary celebration before we get back to work!

Viva Vaquita!

Ban Poster

Poster made by my brother, featuring the beautiful stuffed vaquita sent to me by Jen Gabler

#ISTVD2016 is almost here!

Buckle up! International Save the Vaquita Day 2016 is THIS Saturday, July 9!

This year is going to be bigger than ever, and we will have venues all over the world. Click the link below to learn more about the event and see a list of venues (there may be even more venues that have yet to be confirmed). Find a table near you and join the excitement!

http://www.vivavaquita.org/international-save-the-vaquita-day-2016.html

The event will kick off tomorrow morning, July 7, in Washington, D.C. at the Mexican Embassy, where conservationists will meet with government officials to present the success of the petition that is asking to make the gillnet ban permanent (https://www.change.org/p/make-the-gillnet-ban-permanent-to-save-the-vaquita).

Due to how dire the situation is, there has been recent discussion in the Vaquita conservation community about the possibility of using captive breeding as a last-ditch strategy to save the Vaquita. Here is VIVA Vaquita’s official position statement on this issue:

http://www.vivavaquita.org/vaquita-captive-breeding-statement.html

Get ready for #ISTVD2016!

ISTVD

Last chance to buy an ISTVD 2016 t-shirt!

I have reopened the ISTVD 2016 t-shirt campaign due to popular demand!

There are less than two weeks remaining in the campaign, so please act quickly if you would like to get a stylish shirt for you or a loved one (U.S. residents only). This is the last chance to get an official shirt for what is sure to be the biggest ISTVD yet, and all profits go directly to Vaquita conservation, particularly our International Save the Vaquita Day efforts!

Last winter’s campaign was very successful, raising over $500 for Vaquita conservation!

But that’s nothing compared to this time; we have already sold about 200 shirts, raising almost $3,200 in only 9 days!

Here is part of an update from our petition to make the gillnet ban permanent:

“Not only does the shirt raise awareness for the Vaquita, all profits go to Vaquita conservation, particularly our ISTVD efforts this year.

We have every size, age, and gender, so feel free to get one for everyone in the family!

Of course the shirt is perfect if you are having an ISTVD table, but even if you aren’t, people will ask you about this mysterious animal on your shirt, and voila! Now you have a perfect opportunity to educate someone about the world’s most endangered marine mammal species.”

Get yours now:

https://www.booster.com/istvd-2016

Shirt

60 Vaquitas remain

The results from last year’s survey are in, and as of fall 2015, there are 60 Vaquitas left on the planet.

This new population estimate was released during the seventh meeting of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) last week.

And in case you were wondering, 60 is a very small number when you are talking about the amount of individuals left in an entire species. There is a good chance you saw more than 60 people today. You probably have more than 60 Facebook friends. Look around. I bet you could find 60 of something lying around your house or in your yard right now. You could go outside and count 60 birds in no time.

However, seeing this many Vaquitas would mean seeing every last one in existence.

This new figure demonstrates that the Vaquita is still declining at a rapid pace, despite valiant efforts from the Mexican government and conservationists alike. Nighttime Totoaba poaching is rampant. Three dead Vaquitas were found in March alone. The two-year ban ends in less than a year.

Our work is certainly not done.

If we are going to save the Vaquita, it will require international cooperation at a level that has never been accomplished in the history of conservation. That may sound impossible, but we have reason for hope. Over the next few months, the Vaquita will receive more attention than it (or almost any endangered species, for that matter) ever has.

Since the new population estimate was released, hundreds of articles have been published by the world’s most prominent news outlets highlighting the dire situation of the Vaquita.

Articles such as this one will help bolster awareness of the Vaquita’s plight tremendously.

But that’s not all.

This Sunday, May 22, at 8 pm ET/PT (check local listings) on CBS, there will be an episode of 60 Minutes with a feature story on the Vaquita!

Please be sure to give it a watch and let all your friends know! Millions of people will see it and hopefully be inspired to save the Vaquita. If you are already inspired, you can start immediately with the best way to help: sign our petition to make the gillnet ban permanent.

And of course, the biggest day of the year for the Vaquita is approaching fast: International Save the Vaquita Day 2016 is on July 9, and it is going to be massive.

This is the Year of the Vaquita after all, and if this event is not successful in uniting people around the world for the Vaquita’s cause, the species could be extinct before Christmas.

Wild Lens (now an official member of VIVA Vaquita!) has just released a short film (below) about the Vaquita, highlighting the many sides of this extremely complex issue.

They plan to release the accompanying feature-length documentary, Souls of the Vermilion Sea, in 2018.

Souls of the Vermilion Sea: Searching for the Vaquita from Wild Lens on Vimeo.

Three live Vaquitas spotted!

Last month’s headline was “Three dead Vaquitas found.”

In a very welcome twist of fate, this month’s headline is the exact opposite.

From April 11 to 14, Drs. Barbara Taylor and Jay Barlow joined the crew of the Sea Shepherd M/Y Farley Mowat. Their goal was to spot Vaquitas, and they accomplished this goal in a big way. Between April 12 and 13, they spotted three separate Vaquitas, igniting even more optimism and hope for the future of this species.

However, these three individuals were seen in areas that are known to currently host rampant illegal fishing activity.

Click here to read more.

Sea Shepherd also used a drone to spot poachers using a gillnet at night. The fishermen quickly fled (their location was relayed to the Mexican Navy) and left their net behind, which Sea Shepherd retrieved from the water. Two scalloped hammerhead sharks and four cownose rays were already entangled, and unfortunately, the endangered hammerheads could not be saved. Since January, Sea Shepherd has removed 40 illegal gillnets and 13 longlines from the Vaquita’s range.

Sadly, Sea Shepherd is departing from the Gulf of California in the first week of May.

They will be arriving in San Diego on May 6, and we would like to give them a global “thank you” celebration for all of the amazing work they have done, and to show them that their efforts in the northern Gulf are highly appreciated (and desired again in the very near future). More updates to come on this.

From May 10 to 14, the 7th meeting of CIRVA, the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, will take place. The focus of this meeting will be the publication of the latest population estimate, based on acoustic surveys and the fall 2015 expedition.

A new course of action will be discussed based on this new estimate, and we all hope that the number is higher than expected/feared.

Regardless of the new population estimate, we will continue our efforts will full force. Our main goal is for the Mexican government to agree to our petition to make the gillnet ban permanent, and we can’t accomplish this without your help. Please sign and share this petition. For the Vaquita.

tinyurl.com/vaquitaban

Petition Poster

Three dead Vaquitas found

A Vaquita conservationist’s biggest fear is the death of one of these magnificent creatures. This month, we are living the nightmare.

Three dead Vaquitas have been found in the past few weeks.

March madness indeed. Based on lacerations found during the autopsies, it is apparent that gillnet entanglement is the likely cause of death for these animals. Of course, this means that there is still illegal fishing happening, and that said fishing is killing Vaquitas, a species that cannot afford to lose even one individual.

The mortality rate of Vaquitas needs to be zero. For this to happen, enforcement needs to be stepped up permanently, fishing communities need to be educated and aided with sustainable fishing, and Totoaba swim bladder demand in Asia needs to be reduced.

To convince the Mexican government to take action on these issues, please sign this petition:

https://www.change.org/p/make-the-gillnet-ban-permanent-to-save-the-vaquita

Thanks to a much-needed increase in enforcement (by both the government and NGOs) in the past year, it is not too late to save the Vaquita. However, it is awfully close to it.

Here is a translated statement from PROFEPA:

“Faced with the possibility that these specimens died in gillnets or because of human activities, authorities will intensify inspection activities and night, land, and sea surveillance, especially at sites identified as Totoaba networks; in addition to seeking a rapprochement with the fishing guild to sensitize its members to refrain from poaching activities and forbidden arts.”
We need to make sure that they stand behind these words. On the human side of the effort, things are much better than they were a few years ago, but the Vaquita is still just a death or two away from eternal doom. Now isn’t the time to be casual or lax.

Now is the time to act decisively.

Dead Vaquita found by Sea Shepherd

Dead Vaquita found by Sea Shepherd