Hello again

It’s been a while. The last post I wrote on this blog was in November 2016, at the end of a crazy year and the beginning of an even crazier saga in modern history.

A lot has changed in that year and a half. I am 18 years old now, legally an adult. I live and train at a tennis academy in Greenville, South Carolina, where I’ve made some really good friends while learning a lot about life in general. I’ll be heading back to my birth county in New Jersey in a few months to play tennis for Monmouth University, where I will also study for a degree in Marine and Environmental Biology and Policy.

I created this blog when I was 11 years old, soon after learning about the vaquita and its decline. It was a way for me to share the plight of a beautiful little animal, as well as express myself to people other than my family. It was truly an exhilarating time for me. I posted anything I could find or create about the vaquita; facts, poems, drawings, news. Over time, it grew, and I became partners with many incredible people in all facets of life. From the Muskwa Club, Viva Vaquita, and many other conservation groups, to authors, filmmakers, passionate citizens, and even government officials, I began to learn that this issue had a much wider reach than I expected. People cared about the vaquita, and this public sentiment grew substantially in the years following the conception of V-log. And as the vaquita’s fame grew, so did my optimism. I saw what passion and teamwork could do. We started International Save the Vaquita Day. Millions of people were educated, between the websites, books, social media, ISTVD, and the countless articles and news segments about this animal. I felt my responsibility to share the vaquita’s story lessen as more and more people heard it. The gillnet ban was even made permanent. In a way, it almost felt like it was mission accomplished.

But I had entered a world more complex than anyone could have imagined, let alone a child. The story of the vaquita was not what it seemed from an outsider’s perspective. And perhaps the irony of it all is that I still have no clue what is really happening. I’m not sure if any one person knows the entirety of the situation.

The recent estimates put the vaquita population at fewer than 30 individuals, possibly much fewer. Illegal gillnet fishing continues at a high level. The lucrative totoaba trade thrives. A desperate effort to capture and safely breed vaquitas ended in the worst way possible: the death of a mature female vaquita. It is extremely difficult to remain optimistic as you learn more and more about the deep, dark truth of what is happening on the water and behind closed government doors, despite the best efforts of conservationists there and around the world. From an analytical perspective, the vaquita needs an unprecedented miracle.

Yet, I still have hope. I am 18 years old. I see a world around me at a crossroads in time. I believe these next few years are going to change the world forever. Slowly but surely, around the globe, people are beginning to see what we have done to the planet. Plastic fills the oceans. Species are disappearing. Warming climates are wreaking havoc on land and marine ecosystems, even strengthening natural disasters that are already affecting humanity. In the relative fraction of time we have been on this planet, we’ve doused it with gasoline and struck a match. However, we haven’t thrown down the match yet. I believe we still have time to blow it out.

This next brief moment in history will see the end of many ancient ways of thinking as citizens and governments decide which side of history they would like to be on. It is simply not an option to continue down the path we have created. Humanity will go extinct if we do. Sustainability is the future, because without it, we are going to be just another lost species in Earth’s history as new ecosystems evolve and erase all traces of life as we know it. That idea actually sounds poetic and relaxing in a strange way, but that is because I omitted the few hundred years in between now and our theoretical extinction where human and animal life would descend into a miserable world as more species go extinct while the human population balloons to a level that is not even close to sustainable before storms, heat waves, air pollution, droughts, and diseases spell the end of us. I don’t know about anyone else, but I’d much rather see us stop that trend while we still can by peacefully coexisting with nature.

Forgive me for the apocalyptic rhetoric. I am only using such bold, dark imagery because I know that it is not inevitable and that we still have time to save the planet and ourselves. I firmly believe that we as a species will fully realize what needs to be done and act accordingly, even if it is for selfish reasons. It is ridiculously easy to forget about the problems in the world while we go about our daily lives, especially those of us in first world countries. The extinction of humanity seems unfathomable when you look around at what we have created. However, we are already in the middle of the sixth mass extinction, and we are not excluded from it. Every part of the apocalyptic scenario I laid out is already happening to some extent. It’s not science fiction, it’s science. And it could get much worse. If we wait, every human alive will witness these things firsthand, but it will be too late by then. We need to heed scientists’ desperate warnings and act now.

I am no longer the naive child that created V-log, and I no longer see the world as somewhere that is only good. However, I am still the same person who believes that it is our duty protect the planet, and the same person who truly believes that we will. It is not going to be nearly as easy as I thought when I was 11, and it’s probably going to be a lot harder than I think it is now. But we don’t have a choice. My generation and the ones that come after mine have decades and centuries of life left to live on this planet, and we want to do it in a world that is even better than the one we currently live in.

That brings me back to the vaquita. This precious species has been nearly destroyed by the same traits in humanity that are causing every other problem: ignorance, apathy, corruption, and greed. Deep down, we all have to personally fight these urges in some way every day. Now we need to fight them on a bigger scale. How many more examples do we need of what not to do? Why should the vaquita be just another species that goes extinct before we finally realize that we need to change?

Let’s start right now by saving the vaquita. We don’t have to accept their fate. There are still vaquitas out there swimming right now, and it would be an unforgivable travesty to give up on them in the critical moment. I don’t know what it will take, but we need to find a way to stop the extinction of the vaquita. Ask yourself, which side of history would you like to be on? The revolution needs to start now, and you and I need to be a part of it.

~

Something you can do right now is to purchase an official International Save the Vaquita Day 2018 shirt here: https://www.customink.com/fundraising/istvd2018. All proceeds go to the Muskwa Club’s efforts to save the vaquita and make the world a better place.

Also, please sign this petition and pledge to avoid shrimp from Mexico: https://www.change.org/p/boycott-mexican-shrimp-take-the-pledge. We need to show that we will not accept lackluster enforcement of the gillnet ban.

Learn more about how you can help at https://vlogvaquita.com/how-to-help/ and http://www.vivavaquita.org/act-now-to-save-the-vaquita.html

Thank you.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
―Martin Luther King Jr.

istvd2018

The waiting room

There is no feeling worse than sitting in a waiting room and having no idea what is happening to your loved one in the E.R. You wish you could be there to see what is going on, or better yet, help in any way you can. But you can only sit in the waiting room, staring at the floor and praying to any god out there.

The Vaquita’s situation is no different. The well-being of the patient (Vaquita) is now fully in the surgeon’s (government’s) hands, while we can only sit in our own little waiting rooms and hope that they do the right thing. Nothing is harder for conservationists than feeling powerless. However, we still can help by doing the little things. Signing petitions, spreading awareness, donating to conservation groups, and avoiding unsustainable Mexican seafood can only help the situation.

The 2-year ban has officially been underway for a few weeks now, but there is still much uncertainty as to what really is happening in the Gulf.

There have been claims of Navy officials opening fire on (and injuring) fleeing Totoaba poachers, but these rumors have been denied by a Vaquita expert. There is also word that many or even all of the fishermen have not yet been compensated, and we hope this is also just a rumor, or it’s because they are still working out who is going to get paid. Either way, there is a very real danger that the government doesn’t really intend to compensate the fishermen, who will then be forced to return to (illegal) fishing. Amid all this confusion, not only can independent agencies make a difference, they may be the only chance. Vince Radice said it best in his latest post:

“If [we let] history be our guide and Vaquita conservation is left solely up to the Mexican government, especially enforcement (or should I say the lack thereof) in regards to illegal fishing, as it has been for that last 10 years, it is game over for Vaquita. It is crucial that independent agencies monitor the gill net ban. The lion’s share of work in regards to inspection for the next two years will be on the Mexican Navy and their three new interceptor patrol boats to enforce the no fishing ban. Satellite imaging and the use of drones will be important as well. But who over the next two years is going to start educating the local fisherman that it is in their best interests that they stop killing Vaquitas?”

The shrimp fishermen are not our enemies. Most of them are willing to stay out of the exclusion zone and genuinely care about the Gulf ecosystem, but we can’t expect them to do so without any help or compensation from the government. The poachers of course are a different story. The Mexican Navy has continued to make Totoaba busts, which is very positive news. The poachers are the biggest opponent on the water. They are armed and dangerous, which is why the Navy is the only realistic option for arresting them.

We need to keep the pressure on the Mexican (and U.S.) governments to really make sure they follow through with all their bold promises. If they do, the Vaquita is going to recover.

Here is an article by someone who grew up in San Felipe with a therefore unique perspective on the situation in the Gulf:

‘Ninety years after its founding, the port of San Felipe, Baja California, is not going through its best moments. Illegal fishing of Totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) exerts a negative pressure on the Vaquita (Phocoena sinus) population by increasing the threat of by-catch death due to the use of gillnets to capture the Totoaba. Under increasing national and international pressure, the Mexican government has decided to implement a two-year ban on the use of gillnets and longlines in the Upper Gulf of California, since these place the Vaquita at great risk. Although it is true that there is talk of an economic compensation for the fishermen and the fisheries production chain, which will also be affected by this strategy, the economy of the port of San Felipe will receive a great blow, the magnitude of which is still unknown.

The nervousness created by the ban that will begin in April is one of the factors that make this situation in the Upper Gulf complex. In the last weeks, the region has seen the rise of fuel prices, some paying up to $14 pesos a liter for regular unleaded. In the face of the elevated cost of fuel, the population is asking the government to keep the price equal to that of the city of Mexicali, B.C., since the port belongs to the municipality of the capital of the state, and the difference in prices is excessive. Low volumes of fish catch and high gasoline prices lower profits for fishermen. Gasoline represents the highest among the operation costs of a fishing vessel. 

As the beginning of the ban approaches and fishermen are looking for ways to adapt to the rising fuel prices, they have also had to deal with a no-fishing sanitary ban caused by a red tide. The red tide has been happening for more than a month and the fishing ban on bivalve mollusks has not been lifted, another blow for the economy of the port, since producers for geoduck and other affected species have not been able to commercialize their product during this time. The geoduck fishery is one of the most important for this port; just in 2006 it generated more than $80 million dollars for the state of Baja California. Even though red tides are naturally occurring events, and not all of them result in sanitary bans, the frequency and magnitude can increase due to factors like pollution and even elevated water temperatures. It is the first time in a long time that a red tide is registered to extend all over the Upper Gulf of California (from Puerto Peñasco to Bahia de Los Angeles) and for such a long period of time.

In the midst of these events the fishermen of San Felipe are in a situation of uncertainty. Fishing is the principal source of income and with the suspension of the use of gillnets it is difficult for the sector to visualize a prosperous future in the Upper Gulf of California. According to a document drafted by SAGARPA the value of shrimp, finfish and shark production for San Felipe is $177,256,500 pesos annually. An independent study carried out by the Gulf of California Marine Program calculates that just the chano, Spanish mackerel, gulf corvina, and shrimp fisheries have an estimated annual value of $208,982,142 pesos for the community. The federal government will allocate more than $400 million pesos to compensate the fishermen of the Upper Gulf for the economic losses that the ban of gillnets will cause. In addition, it will invest more than $28 million pesos to compensate members of the productive food chain.

On the other hand, not everything is tragic. Government agencies like Sepesca-BC, CONANP, and CONAPESCA will offer support and financing programs for aquaculture and mariculture projects, among others, aimed at fishermen and cooperatives. These are alternatives for the fishermen’s economy and therefore, for the port. In the next two years it will be extremely important to invest in infrastructure for the port to guarantee the well being of the sector and absorb the economic blow that the region will suffer. Some fishermen will be able to participate in monitoring activities, for which the government has destined a little over $80 million pesos. In addition, there is also the possibility of continuing their fishing activities, as long as they use alternative fishing practices like traps and hook-and-line (commonly known there as “piola”). Sports fishing can become a profitable alternative since San Felipe is a well-known destination for national and international fishing aficionados.

Undoubtedly, the next few months will be difficult for the fishing sector. We have to work by monitoring the changes and adjustments that will be carried out in the Upper Gulf of California to keep looking for ways to balance fisheries with conservation.’

One way the pressure is being kept on the government is with this petition:

http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/species/mammals/vaquita/pdfs/Gulf_of_California_WH_In_Danger_Petition_5_13_15.pdf

‘U.S. conservation groups petitioned the World Heritage Committee today to designate more than 6,900 square miles of ocean and islands in northern Mexico as “in danger” due to the urgent threat of extinction of the critically endangered Vaquita porpoise and Totoaba (a fish species) in the Gulf of California. The World Heritage Committee may consider the petition at its annual meeting in Bonn, Germany, this June.

Although the World Heritage Committee designated Mexico’s “Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California” as a World Heritage property in 2005 in recognition of the area’s outstanding biodiversity, the Vaquita and Totoaba now face extinction as a result of fishing activities, including poaching. The Vaquita is the world’s smallest porpoise and exists only in Mexico’s Gulf of California; the species has suffered a dramatic and alarming decline, with fewer than 100 animals remaining. Without help, scientists predict, the Vaquita could be extinct by 2018.

“Mexico’s Gulf of California World Heritage Area holds some of the world’s most incredible biodiversity and two of the world’s rarest species — the Vaquita and the Totoaba,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But time is running out. If Mexico doesn’t fully and permanently protect the area, these species will vanish forever.”

Under the World Heritage Convention, a property may be listed as “in danger” if there is a “serious decline in the population of the endangered species” that the property was established to protect, like the Vaquita and Totoaba. An “in danger” designation, the conservation groups advocate, will focus international attention on the species’ plight and may garner much-needed funds for the area’s conservation.

“The World Heritage Committee has an opportunity to help address the ongoing threats to the Vaquita and Totoaba by both designating this site as ‘in danger’ and by providing resources to reverse the decline in the species and degradation of this globally important World Heritage Area,” said D.J. Schubert, wildlife biologist at the Animal Welfare Institute. “An ‘in danger’ designation would be a wake-up call to Mexico and the world that more must be done to conserve this area and its species.”

Vaquita are often entangled in shrimp fishing gear and illegal gillnets set for Totoaba, a six-foot-long, critically endangered fish that is also only found in the Gulf of California. The Totoaba’s swim bladder is highly sought-after to make soup and for unproven treatments in traditional Chinese medicine. The species faces an increasing demand in the global black market, as a single Totoaba bladder can sell for USD $14,000.

Today’s petition follows Mexico’s announcement last month of a two-year ban on most gillnets in the northern Gulf of California and a promise of increased enforcement. While these measures are critical steps forward, the area requires permanent protection to ensure the two species’ future.

“While we applaud Mexico on its recent efforts to protect the Vaquita, the nation has a long and sad history of making ambitious pronouncements but not following through for the Vaquita,” said Uhlemann. “We hope an ‘in danger’ listing for the Gulf of California World Heritage property will bring international attention and funding necessary to save both the Vaquita and Totoaba from extinction.”’

Another thing to keep in the back of our minds is a boycott on all Mexican seafood. At this time the embargo is not in action, but we are prepared to boycott all Mexican seafood products if gillnet fishing continues and the Mexican government does not stop it.

Later this year, there will hopefully be an official Vaquita survey by NGOs and the Mexican government to get the most accurate and up-to-date population estimate.

After filming a Vaquita for the first time since 2013 (see previous post), Sea Shepherd’s Operation Milagro has made another big progression. They announced a partnership with the Mexican government that will enable Sea Shepherd to collaborate with them and also help patrol the exclusion zone. Read more here.

This is going to be a big summer for the Vaquita. We will all be on the edge of our seats waiting to see what the Mexican government does, and then acting based on that. A lot of exciting things are going on behind the scenes at VIVA Vaquita HQ, including planning for International Save the Vaquita Day 2015, on July 11!

And on Sunday, June 7 from 11:00 am-4:00 pm, I will have a Vaquita table in Boston at the New England Aquarium’s World Oceans Day celebration. Please join me!

CBD Graphic

The rundown

I’m sure many of you who are reading this don’t really know what’s going on in the Vaquita world. And unless you are in VIVA Vaquita, I don’t really expect you to.

So here’s the rundown:

We all were crossing our fingers on Thanksgiving in hopes of the Mexican government’s Vaquita announcement being good news. In typical fashion, the announcement came over a week late. And it wasn’t really a public announcement. In summary, the announcement was that in San Felipe and El Golfo de Santa Clara (not Puerto Peñasco) shrimp (not corvina) gillnetting and longline fishing will be banned for a year, while compensating for the fishermen’s losses. At first, this sounds like good news, a strong start with a lot of potential success. Well, there’s one kicker they didn’t mention: it’s optional.

When I found this out, I felt like the world was collapsing. In terms of gillnet fishing, anything that’s optional means they aren’t going to do it. It’s just a plain fact. Even when it isn’t optional they still illegally fish. On December 5th, in the Vaquita Refuge, what is thought of as one of the few remaining safe havens for the Vaquita, 90 boats, many of which had gillnets were photographed in an aerial survey. 90. And that’s just in the Refuge.

Copyright © Joe Dlugo

Copyright © Joe Dlugo

So, it seemed to us at VIVA Vaquita that the Mexican government wasn’t taking CIRVA’s recommendations for a complete ban seriously. And after much, MUCH consideration and taking account for all variables and outcomes, here is the official statement from VIVA Vaquita:

 

URGENT ANNOUNCEMENT-

VAQUITA NEARING EXTINCTION!

 

In July 2014, at the 5th Meeting of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), it was estimated that the Vaquita population had decreased to only 97 individuals, and the rate of decline had accelerated to an estimated 18.5% annually (CIRVA 2014). Recent evidence indicates that about 28 Vaquitas (29% of the current population) were killed in gillnets in the 2013/2014 period (Urrutia-Osorio et al. 2014). Despite CIRVA’s strong and urgent call for an immediate ban on all gillnets in the Vaquita’s range, as a critical measure to avoid the species going extinct in the next couple of years, the Mexican Government has not implemented any such ban. The shrimp gillnet fishery continues legally, and there is now rampant illegal fishing with gillnets inside the Vaquita Refuge. This is in addition to the illegal gillnet fishery for Totoaba, itself an endemic and endangered species, which has apparently expanded, and is now fueling the drastic decline in Vaquita numbers.

The Vaquita population most likely now numbers less than 90 individuals (perhaps much less), and is rapidly heading toward extinction, with a probable point of no return in the next year. Valuable time has been lost during the 2014 shrimp gillnet fishing season, with the Mexican Government delaying action, and vaquita numbers declining further.

In light of this, ¡VIVA Vaquita! is calling on the Mexican Government to immediately implement and enforce a two-year ban on all gillnets in the Vaquita’s range, as recommended by CIRVA. We ask all consumers to purchase and support only those Mexican seafood products (i.e., fish and shrimp) that have been caught with methods other than gillnets (methods such as trawls, longlines, or hook & line gear). Check product packaging for place of origin and ask your seafood servers/vendors to serve ONLY non-gillnet caught items. A two-year ban will buy time for the Vaquita, and allow for the full conversion of fisheries to more sustainable gear. Support for fishermen who are willing to use alternative gear (i.e., less damaging than gillnets) is essential for the survival of the vaquita, as well as other marine life in the Gulf of California.

References:

CIRVA (International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita). 2014. Report of the 5th Meeting of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita. Ensenada, Baja California, México, 8-10 July 2014, Unpublished Report, 38pp.

Urrutia-Osorio, M. F., A. M. Jaramillo-Legorreta and O. S. Osa-Nishizaki. 2014. Analysis of the artisanal fisheries’ fishing effort dynamics in San Felipe as a bycatch modeling tool for the vaquita (Phocoena sinus). Presentation at American Cetacean Society’s 14th International Conference, 7-9 November 2014, Newport Beach, CA.

We encourage you to avoid buying any seafood products from Mexico, unless you are positive they are from Vaquita-safe sources. This can only work if it spreads through social media like wildfire.

The Muskwa Club has also formed an extremely well thought-out five-part plan that we will begin implementing immediately.

The plan contains the following five parts:

1. Educate consumers in China and Chinese restaurants in America about the negative effects of the Totoaba trade for the Vaquita and the fish itself.

2. Design an efficient, cheap, and Vaquita-safe trawl net that will be given to fishermen as a replacement for gillnets.

3. Continue educating the public about the Vaquita’s plight, including International Save the Vaquita Day.

4. Reach out to celebrities due to their ability to raise funds for the ban and the safe nets, as well as begin a public outcry in favor of the Vaquita

5. Keep everyone’s spirits up in the Vaquita community. It is not too late for the species, unless we don’t work together or stay positive.

We will do everything in our power to make these five steps come true, but there is only so much a group of teenagers can do.

None of this will be possible without your generous support. We ask you to please donate to VIVA Vaquita, as now is a more important time than ever: http://www.vivavaquita.org/donations.html

VIVA Vaquita’s site has undergone a major makeover, which will be published any day now.

Another extremely helpful step you can take is to sign and share our Vaquita petitions, the newest being an urgent letter to the Mexican president and others: https://www.change.org/p/enrique-pe%C3%B1a-nieto-stop-the-extinction-of-the-vaquita-porpoise.

I am pleased to say the word is really getting out about the Vaquita. Nearly all of my relatives have called me saying they saw the Vaquita in the news, and my aunt even sent me this newspaper clipping:

Clipping

And any time you need any motivation to help the Vaquita, just take a look at this picture:

Vaquita Andrew Wright