New vaquita book!

Brooke Bessesen’s book, Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez, is now available to order!

This non-fiction account of the entire history of the vaquita and its conservation has been many years in the making. Vaquita expertly weaves between every side of this gripping real-life environmental thriller that I have been lucky enough to be a part of for these past eight years or so. It is wonderful to see it all down on the page, and I am also fortunate enough to have been mentioned in the book. Bessesen writes with an expert hand, and I cannot wait to finish reading my copy. This is a must-have for anyone interested in environmental issues, and it could not have come at a more pressing time.

Order your copy now, and use the discount code 4VAQUITA to get 20% off!

https://islandpress.org/books/vaquita

Vaquita Book

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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

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

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

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

An essay on conservation

“I really wonder what gives us the right to wreck this poor planet of ours.”
—Kurt Vonnegut

Conservation is not the most glorious job. It is not the most fun job. It is not the highest-paying job. It is barely even talked about in job conversations.

However, it may just be the world’s most important job.

You are probably shaking your head or maybe even already clicking off of this page in disgust.

What about doctors? Teachers? Soldiers? You have to be joking! You think that tree-huggers are more important than brain surgeons or policemen putting their lives on the line?! This kid is an arrogant lunatic!

I understand and accept that this may sound completely insane to many, if not most, people, so let me clear a few things up. I am not saying anything about the people themselves who work in any of these fields. I’m sure there has been a conservationist that was a murderer, and the same for all of the jobs above. Also, I am not saying conservationists are necessarily more brave, smart, admirable, valiant, deserving, etc. than those in the above fields of work. I am also not saying that conservation is more valuable to our society than saving human lives or defending our country.

This is where the importance of my original statement’s wording comes into play. I said that conservation may be the world’s most important job. I did not say that conservation is the most important job for somebody that is sick. I didn’t say it is the most important job for our cities or countries. And I didn’t say it was the most important job for humanity in general.

It is the most important job for the world. All of the jobs above have one thing in common: they are only to help other people. Many people don’t realize that humanity is not the only thing that matters.

Conservation is the act of protecting nature from harm. And the last time I checked, there is quite a bit of harm being inflicted on nature. It could be said that conservation is literally the act of “saving the world.”

It is a very rare and admirable thing when a person truly believes that he and his species are not more important than any other animal on the planet. Yes, we are likely the smartest animal (key word, likely), and you may say, “Of course we should care more about our own species, it’s only natural! A chimpanzee wouldn’t help a human instead of another chimpanzee!”

This may be true. However, there is one important distinction that is the driving force of my entire argument (and conservation in general, for that matter): Chimpanzees aren’t chopping down rainforests, destroying the ozone layer, or killing innocent species in nets just to throw their corpses back into the water because they weren’t the target catch.

We are the only species that is truly destroying our planet. Chimpanzees have no responsibility for human welfare, because chimpanzees do not destroy human habitat or murder us by the millions for traditional “medicines.” It is absolutely impossible to justify the act of destroying our planet and then not trying to fix our damages. Conservationists are the people who are in charge of fixing those damages.

Human selfishness and greed has brought our entire planet to the brink. Just think of how well the planet’s species would be doing if humans never existed. More species are endangered now than ever before, and we are in the beginning of a sixth mass extinction.

And the one thing that people don’t realize is that we are included in this extinction. How can humans survive without plants and animals? If we continue this rate of destruction, we will not only ruin the planet, we will be committing suicide.

Here are two videos by Conservation International about our planet and what we are doing to it (view all of them here).

A few weeks ago I had a lengthy conversation with someone who was opposed to our petition to make the gillnet ban permanent. He believed that it would be unfair to remove the main livelihood available in the Gulf communities, and that the ban would cause hunger, crime, and poverty in the area. He said that we conservationists would need to teach the fishermen how to use the alternative fishing gear, as well as send down truckloads of food for the families that are not receiving compensation. While he had many good points throughout the conversation (up until he said that he will never believe that gillnets are the cause of the Vaquita’s plight), he was essentially misinformed in many facets and represented a very common issue that conservationists have to deal with.

Conservationists cannot do this alone. It is important to remember that our job is to protect the environment. We are not human rights activists; that is a completely separate and, of course, very important job. In this case, our main priority is saving the Vaquita. We will do whatever we can (within reason) to make that happen. We propose a ban, for example, to the government, and then it is their job to decide whether or not it should be put into place. While making this decision, they carefully weigh every side of the situation, human and animal. They choose what laws are created, not conservationists. They are also responsible for things like compensation and training.

Once again, our job is to protect the environment and its species. And ironically, we are protecting the environment from our own species. In many cases, humans are the enemy of conservationists, but in the Vaquita’s situation, most of the fishermen are not the enemy. The real enemies are the Totoaba cartels and the Asian markets that fuel them. But any fisherman that fishes illegally is, of course, a criminal. The shrimp fishermen who fish illegally in the Vaquita’s range are generally just driven by the hunger of their families, not the quick riches that the Totoaba cartels are after. Nonetheless, what they are doing must be stopped as well.

There is nothing that would make us Vaquita conservationists happier than seeing every Gulf fisherman making a good living by fishing sustainably or giving ecotours as the Vaquita’s population recovers and thrives. This is slightly unrealistic, but, for the most part, it can be accomplished. The hunger, crime, and poverty in Mexico have been occurring for much longer than we have even known about the Vaquita, let alone since the two-year ban started last year.

If Mexican fishing communities wish to prosper, going back to killing every animal in the ocean is not the answer. To see change, we need to change. Here we have a wonderful opportunity presented before us; an opportunity to pioneer a new way of living, a way of living that will soon be mandatory: peacefully coexisting with nature. And whatever happens in the Gulf will have global implications; a solution to this problem will echo across the conservation community, and therefore affect every last species.

Mexico has a chance to save the world.