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

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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.

Post-a-day Challenge

Please participate in our newest campaign: the Vaquita “Post-a-day Challenge!” We are challenging you to write at least one Vaquita post on social media every day for the entire month of March (already starting tomorrow!). Please let us know if you are participating (via comments, posts, or tweets), and share the banner below to spread the word! Also, if you read this after March 1st, please still participate. It is much better late than never! #SaveTheVaquita!

Post-a-day Challenge

In other news, I am now part of The Dodo, an amazing animal website, where I will occasionally be posting some Vaquita articles: https://www.thedodo.com/community/vlogvaquita.

Also, please add this International Save the Vaquita Day PicBadge to your Facebook profile picture!

William Whittenbury sent me this great picture of my books in the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium’s gift shop! Please purchase one as a donation to multiple Vaquita charities, such as ¡VIVA Vaquita! and the Muskwa Club.

Book on sale

Also, keep an eye out on Paws on Controls, a really neat activism website that will be featuring an article about the Vaquita and V-log in the near future.

Reflecting on experience

“We do not learn from experience…we learn from reflecting on experience.”
John Dewey

Lately I have been thinking a lot about saving the Vaquita…I mean really saving the Vaquita, not just blurting out words and ideas without even fully processing what we are saying. Saving a species has become such a widely used term that we sometimes forget to dig all the way down to the roots of the problem. As the quote above by American philosopher John Dewey states, we need to reflect on our experiences to learn something. In this case, our experiences would be conservation success and failure stories. I decided to look for patterns in the successful species recoveries, as well as in the ones that were not so lucky, to determine what can and should really be done to save the Vaquita.

This article (please read it now) was perfect for this type of research. It is a list of the “top 10 conservation successes and failures,” from 2006. The date does not really matter here, because information about something that happened in, say, 2000 will not change between 2006 and 2013, similar to a history textbook. Here are the successes from the list:

Reforestation of China
The American Bison
Southern White Rhino
Wildlife Reserves Cover 10% of the Earth’s Land
Golden Lion Tamarin Monkey

So what do all of these success stories have in common? The answer is we actually did something. We tried. Scientists started captive breeding programs. Conservationists created protected areas. We made sure we protected the species with every last ounce of energy we could. A captive breeding program unfortunately could not work for the Vaquita because they don’t survive in captivity, and even if they did, they would be virtually impossible to capture in the first place. And don’t even get me started on the whole SeaWorld issue (I am getting Blackfish for Christmas). Our main goal to help the Vaquita should be to really try, and I don’t just mean conservationists. Everyone, fishermen, public figures, governments, and the citizens of the world need to band together to save a species that cannot save itself. We already have multiple protected areas for the Vaquita, which is a great start, but as I’ve said many times before, the areas do not completely cover the porpoise’s full range. And enforcement on these protected areas is not as strong as it needs to be, which is hopefully changing. Fortunately, animals with smaller populations and more dangerous habitats than the Vaquita have come back from the brink of extinction, so it is still not too late.

Now let’s look at the failures to learn what to avoid in our mission to save the Vaquita:

Destruction of the Amazonian Rainforest
Saiga Antelope
Northern White Rhino
Worldwide Amphibian Declines
Orangutan

So what did we do differently? As you might expect, the exact opposite of what we did in the successes: absolutely nothing. As with basically every endangered species on the planet, these animals are being destroyed by us humans, much like the Vaquita is. Yet we did not take the responsibility of helping our innocent victims. Many of these failures are due to a lack of understanding or control over the threat. Luckily, the Vaquita is in a perfect habitat with only one problem: accidental entanglement in gillnets. Bycatch is a much easier-to-deal-with threat than poaching or trapping because it isn’t even intentional, and climate change because it is a direct threat. With the right teamwork, the Vaquita can definitely be saved.

So in recap, we learned that we can save the Vaquita by, well, saving it. We mustn’t sit around and hope it survives.

We need to take action now, before the Vaquita itself becomes an experience to reflect upon.

Cooking to save the Vaquita

It is no secret that gillnets are the only danger to the Vaquita’s population. It has been that way for as long as we have known about the endemic little porpoise. So it should be quite clear what needs to happen in order to save it: get the gillnets out of the Vaquita’s range. A huge step in making this a reality is completely eliminating the purchasing of gillnet-caught seafood from the Gulf of California. The Gulf’s principal exporter is the company Ocean Garden, and the people there are big on Vaquita conservation and even founded the group Alto Golfo Sustentable (Sustainable Upper Gulf). Here is a quote from one of their newsletters:

“As a founding member of the sustainability group Alto Golfo Sustentable, Ocean Garden has taken a leadership role to protect the endangered vaquita marina porpoise and the Sea of Cortez environment, improve the efficiency of the shrimp fishery and support the native fishermen.”

It is extremely important and comforting that the primary marketer of the Gulf’s shrimp prioritizes Vaquita conservation. This should mean that the only gillnet-caught shrimp from the Gulf is for self-sustenance or local markets. However, it is thought that up to 80% of the Gulf’s shrimp is exported to the United States. It is therefore vital that we support sustainable fishing for two reasons: first, to save the ocean (the whole point of sustainable fishing), and second, to encourage the gillnet-users to make the switch to Vaquita-safe gear when they see the success of sustainable fishermen. So of course, this gave me an idea…

The idea is to use this blog as a sharing platform for sustainable recipes in order to spread the excitement of saving the Vaquita. I got the idea while reading this great post about the restaurant Misión 19’s Vaquita-friendly shrimp celebration. I have started off our own celebration by making Shrimp in Coconut-milk Broth, a dish inspired my Misión 19 chef Javier Plascencia. It was absolutely delicious and 100% sustainable.

Shrimp in Coconut-milk Broth Recipe

20131026-192910.jpg

Now it’s your turn. Do you know any sustainable seafood recipes? If not, a great resource is Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. You can even create your own dishes! Leave your recipes in the comments or even make them yourself and share it on Facebook or your own blog and send me the link. I will post any recipes I receive and might even make a few myself if they sound really good! The most important thing is that the seafood is sustainable and you have fun while helping the Vaquita!

I look forward to seeing what all you cooks out there can stir up! 😉