How to save the Vaquita

Happy World Wildlife Day! Here is a great post by the President of The Ocean Foundation, Mark J. Spalding, and former Executive Director of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, Tim Ragen:

“EFFORTS TAKEN TO date by Mexico, the United States, and the global community have been helpful, but have not been sufficient to save the Vaquita from extinction. Conserving the species will require a fundamental change in the nature and rigor of recovery efforts—to save the Vaquita the next round of protection measures cannot be half-hearted, indecisive, or poorly implemented. We need a strategy that can be implemented immediately and then sustained for the long-term—it is simply disingenuous to suggest anything less will do. The following are twelve tasks that must be accomplished if we are to prevent the Vaquita from vanishing from the face of the earth.

Mexico must:

  1. Remove—in perpetuity—all gillnets from the species’ full range, including those that are being used legally to catch shrimp and finfish, and those that are being used illegally to catch the endangered Totoaba. We have long known that gillnets are the primary factor causing the decline of the Vaquita.
  2. Staunchly enforce the prohibition on gillnets using both aircraft, vessels, and aggressive judicial retribution. A prohibition on gillnets is effectively meaningless unless the Mexican government enforces that prohibition.
  3. Require all fishermen currently using gillnets to fish for shrimp to shift immediately to small trawls (e.g., red selectiva) if they want to fish within the historic range of the Vaquita. Small trawls are used effectively to fish for shrimp in other parts of the world and they have been shown to be effective in the northern Gulf of California. Switching gears will require some adaptability by fishermen, but does not pose an insurmountable problem.
  4. Require all fishermen currently using gillnets to target finfish to shift immediately to alternative, Vaquita-safe gear if they want to fish within the Vaquita’s historic range. An entangled Vaquita will drown in a gillnet used for finfish just as quickly as it will drown in a shrimp gillnet.
  5. Work with the United States, China, and other Asia nations to end the illegal fishing and trade of Totoaba. Gillnets are being used illegally to fish for the endangered Totoaba; the swim bladders of these fish are then sold in Asian black markets. Few human activities are as destructive to endangered wildlife populations as these absurd black markets.
  6. Begin training programs to educate and train fishermen in the use of new, Vaquita-safe fishing gear for both shrimp and finfish. Vaquita recovery efforts are not intended to harm fishermen, who will require assistance to shift to safe gear types.
  7. Support the work of international scientists to maintain the acoustic monitoring system developed over the past 5 years. Keeping track of the status of the remaining Vaquita population is critical to guide recovery efforts. The acoustic monitoring system used for this purpose is the best possible monitoring strategy available under these circumstances.

The United States must:

  1. Bring the full weight of key administrative departments and agencies to bear on this issue. Those include the Department of Commerce (including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the International Trade Administration), the Department of State, the Department of the Interior (including the Office of Law Enforcement in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), and the Marine Mammal Commission. Conservation organizations also are key partners in this recovery effort.
  2. The Department of Commerce, including NOAA and the International Trade Administration, must implement a full embargo of all seafood products caught in all Mexican fisheries if all gillnets are not removed immediately from the Vaquita’s historic range. NOAA also must continue to provide scientific expertise to Vaquita recovery efforts.
  3. The Department of State must send a message of strong concern to its Mexican counterparts regarding the pending extinction of the Vaquita. That message must convey that the United States stands ready to assist with recovery efforts, but that it also expects Mexico to implement, in a full and effective manner, the recovery measures needed to save the Vaquita. The Department of State also must make it clear to their Asian counterparts that the United States fully intends use all means available to it to stop the illegal trade in Totoaba.
  4. The Office of Law Enforcement of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of the Interior, must lead efforts to halt the illegal trade of Totoaba parts. Much of the illegal trade apparently goes through southern California, but it must be halted in all areas under U.S. jurisdiction.
  5. Conservation organizations are key partners in this recovery effort. Funding will be needed to support recovery efforts by the Mexican and U.S. governments. The conservation community may have access to resources not otherwise available to government departments and agencies, and they have the flexibility to respond more quickly to funding needs.

There is hope but we, collectively, face a choice. We must make it now and there’s no going back if we fail. If we cannot save this species when the problem is so abundantly clear and manageable, then our hopes and aspirations for other endangered species are little more than whimsical. The question is not whether we can do this—it’s whether we will.”

They bring up some great points in this article. First, they address that the Vaquita is in a better situation than most other endangered species. Obviously they are still in deep trouble, but in essence, if we can’t force ourselves to save the Vaquita, we might as well give up on the species that have more complicated threats.

Basically, this is article is a list of things that the governments of Mexico and the United States must accomplish to save the Vaquita. You are kidding yourself if you don’t believe the government is the only thing controlling the fate of the species. The government is what creates, implements, and enforces all the laws. The government is the only thing that can stop fishermen from using gillnets.

So, where does that leave us civilians?

In the past, I have always said sustainable seafood is a great way to help the Vaquita. And it absolutely is. But in this time of crisis, it will not be the thing that turns around the situation. Now, what we need to focus on is making sure the Mexican and U.S. governments accomplish the above 12 goals. The only way to do this is to tell them we appreciate their efforts up to this point, but that even more is needed in order to save the Vaquita. An extremely easy way to do this is to sign and share petitions such as:

VIVA Vaquita Petition

Save the Whales Petition

Greenpeace Petition English

Greenpeace Petition Spanish

Spreading the word, and especially these petitions, puts tremendous pressure on the government to implement the necessary plans to save the Vaquita. The official 2-year ban on all gillnets in the Vaquita’s full range was supposed to begin on March 1, but now it has been postponed to begin a month later, on April 1. We hope this delay was only because they still needed time to finalize legalities, distribute compensation, and prepare to enforce the ban. We need to make sure the Mexican government is 100% serious about this ban, because otherwise, there is absolutely no chance for the Vaquita. And before the next two years are up, the Mexican government needs to create a long-term plan. But this two year ban, if properly enforced, is a perfect first step. It should allow enough time for the development of Vaquita-safe nets for every type of legal fishery, and also be a test for the Mexican government to see if they can enforce a ban successfully. The illegal Totoaba fishery will prove an extremely difficult test to stop, but if enough people work together, it can be done.

The next few years are going to be remembered forever as either a complete failure to solve a relatively simple environmental issue, or as one of the greatest conservation success stories of all time. Let’s make it the latter.

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6 thoughts on “How to save the Vaquita

  1. Thanks for the information, and I signed the petitions. I agree that the most pressing need is to pressure governments, particularly the Mexican on, to act now, and supporting petitions is the easiest way to help toward that end.

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  2. There is one thing that was not mentioned Aidan. The agency in Mexico that was charged with protecting La Vaquita is called Profepa. I just recently interviewed a representative from a local NGO who I can not name. He confirmed to me essentially that Profepa, the agency that was and currently is in charge of patrolling the Vaquita refuge has been responsible for actually setting the price of totoaba air bladders with illegal fisherman. It is hard to believe something like that unless you actually live in Mexico and have seen this type of corruption first hand. When I was in San Felipe the head of Profepa went out of his way to avoid our pre scheduled interview that I took two months to set up with the director of communications in Mexico City. Cirva’s last report was a scathing indictment on Profepa as well. There is little doubt in my mind at this point that Profepa has been on the take and working with the illegal fisherman. I wish I did not have to say this but it is alas true.

    The amount of distrust in the Mexican government has never been greater than it is right now. The mistrust is well deserved and the corruption that has existed in Profepa must be rectified. It is the elephant in the room that must not be ignored.

    Recently our NGO (WorldsAquarium) has been in contact with the Center for Biological Diversity and we hope that we might get funding to be an independent watch dog to help monitor the gill net ban that supposedly goes into effect now. It is crucial that there be a serious amount of transparency in the enforcement of the area.

    It is a simple solution now. No more gill nets period. I fear that the Mexican government is not really up to the task. I hope I am proven wrong. Great Blog!! Keep up the good work!!

    Saludos, Vince

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