IWC approves new measures to save vaquita, but more is needed

The International Whaling Commission has just announced a plan that entails “greater enforcement of a gillnet ban throughout the vaquita’s range, support for efforts to remove existing gillnets and eliminate all transit and trade in totoaba products, as well as support for vaquita monitoring programs.” This, along with last month’s CITES agreement (see previous post), is obviously good news. Practically everyone has voiced their support for vaquita conservation by now, from conservationists, to organizations and commissions, to government officials, and even to fishermen.

But as we have been saying for years, words and laws do not directly translate into real world success.

Here is a very important article about a new study by researchers at UC San Diego, which explains that in order to actually save the vaquita, we need to approach this issue from a different perspective, because what he have been doing so far has not succeeded in reversing this species’ drastic decline:

With fewer than 60 individuals left, the world’s smallest porpoise, the vaquita marina (Phocoena sinus), continues to balance on the edge of extinction. Constant pressures from conservation groups have lead to a two-year emergency gillnet ban, which will end in May 2017, and government-led efforts are now pushing fishers to use gear that won’t threaten the vaquita through bycatch.

Despite these steps, in a new study my colleagues and I warn that unless further big changes are made in the Upper Gulf of California, Mexico, we may soon be saying goodbye to this charismatic little animal.

The history of vaquita conservation is long and convoluted. It has been characterized by intermittent top-down management interventions that have often had little more than short-term outlooks. These have perpetuated the decline of the vaquita population, which is now estimated to contain less than 25 reproductively mature females.

The new Conservation Letters study describes how the gillnet ban now in effect, and the introduction of new trawl gear may address the immediate problem of vaquita bycatch but even taken together, they will likely be yet another short-term – and, most likely, ineffective – attempt to pull the vaquita back from the brink of extinction.

Gillnets sit in midwater and are made of fine line, which is difficult to see in the Upper Gulf’s murky waters. Similar to almost all cetacean bycatch, vaquita are unable to free themselves once entangled and risk being drowned while held under water.

Trawl gear is an alternative that reduces the risk of bycatch. These heavy gears are towed along the seafloor catching any animal not quick enough to outswim the mouth of the approaching net. The mouth of the net is much smaller than the area of a gillnet, which reduces the effective catch area that poses a risk to the vaquita. Also, the use of trawl gear is noisy, more easily visible and therefore more easily avoidable than gillnets for cetacean species.

But this alternative is more expensive. After accounting for lower catch rates, higher fuel expenditure and the cost of the switch from gillnets to trawls, we estimated that an annual subsidy of at least US$8.5 million would be needed to compensate fishers in the Upper Gulf for loss of employment and earnings. Long term, the economic losses from the new management interventions could have one or two side effects: 1) a reliance on subsidies and/or 2) increased illegal fishing activities.

What’s more, an endangered yet highly prized fish is caught in these waters with gillnets. Swim bladders known as buche from the endangered totoaba (Totoaba macdonali) can sell for tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars per kilo, depending on the size of the bladder and the demand of the Chinese market. This “aquatic cocaine” complicates the plight of the vaquita because illegal fishing to catch the totoaba pose a risk to the few vaquita that remain.

There are also significant ecological risks to the new management plan. The impacts of trawl gear to seafloor species are significantly greater than those posed by gillnets because they are dragged along sea floors, reducing productivity in many shelf sea ecosystems and negatively affecting community compositions and diversity. In just 26 days of gear testing in the Upper Gulf prior to the gillnet ban, 30 percent, or 2,819 square kilometers (1,715 square miles), of the Upper Gulf biosphere reserve’s total area was scoured by the new trawl gears. Longer term, we warn in our study this could have severely detrimental consequences for the health of the Upper Gulf marine ecosystem.

My colleagues and I believe there is little use in pointing the finger of blame at this point, as seems to be the case in many articles discussing the fight for the vaquita. Instead, the vaquita situation urgently needs a new way of thinking, a paradigm shift.

Consistent exclusion of fishers from the design of management plans, typically driven by conservation groups and implemented by the government, has led to polarized opinions and a large divide between what should be a close collaboration between fishers and conservation agencies. Rushed, short-sighted management must be replaced by longer-term goals that involve local communities and address conservation challenges associated with both the vaquita and the totoaba.

Community support of management measures, in particular, seems essential for long-term success in conservation stories. We recommend that the local communities in the Upper Gulf require external investment. Specifically, the development of infrastructure, such as road networks to connect fishers to new markets and processing facilities, would benefit the current situation by providing new employment opportunities as well as increased returns on ever dwindling fish catches.

Education is also key. This should include programs to educate fishers in the consequences of unsustainable fisheries practices, techniques to help add value to their catches and alternative livelihoods to fishing such as tourism or potential service industry employment.

At present there are few employment alternatives for fishers in the Upper Gulf. Often, men are recruited into the fishery as young as 15 and the common story of “once a fisher, always a fisher” prevails. We highlight that an investment in education could both help promote marine stewardship as fishers better understand the longer-term consequences of current fisheries practices. It could also provide the younger generation with the training to build new business or follow paths in higher education instead of joining the local fisheries.

As with many of the world’s ecological problems, overcapacity seems to be key. In the case of the upper Gulf fisheries, too many people are catching too many fish from finite stocks. Continued overexploitation of any natural resource ultimately means communities risk destroying the finite natural resources they depend on.

To put it simply, communities in the Upper Gulf of California need help to reduce both the number of fishers currently fishing and the number of future fishers entering the fisheries. This will help promote alternative, nonextractive activities in order to alleviate the impacts that current fisheries practices have on fish stocks, the vaquita and, with the new trawl gear intervention, sea floor habitats.

A meeting in late July of this year between Presidents Obama and Peña Nieto concluded with a tentative proposal for a permanent extension of the Upper Gulf’s gillnet ban and a crack down on the totoaba trade. Although eliminating vaquita bycatch is crucial for the species’ survival, ignoring economic losses, local livelihoods, and new ecological problems related to trawl impacts, the Mexican government may have missed the point again.

With one foot of the vaquita firmly in the grave, now does not seem to be the time to make somewhat incomplete decisions regarding the survival of the vaquita, the health of the Upper Gulf of California’s ecosystem, and the social wellbeing of the families that live in this remote area of Mexico.”

Clearly, long term action is the only true solution to the problem. We hope that the government, conservationists, and fishermen can all work together to accomplish this.

However, if we don’t protect the few remaining vaquitas right now, there will be no “long term.”

Possibly the most promising aspect of the vaquita’s recent situation is Sea Shepherd’s involvement in enforcing the gillnet ban while working with the Mexican government. They are about to begin their third campaign (Operation Milagro) in the Upper Gulf, and they need our help in order to accomplish what is truly necessary to save the vaquita. Please contribute anything you can, and share this link with everyone you know. If you want to save the vaquita, there is no better place to put your money. Thank you.

http://www.seashepherd.org/milagro3/donate-now/vaquita-appeal.html

CITES agrees to protect vaquita!

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) has just announced a plan to end totoaba poaching in order to save the vaquita.

CITES is an agreement between 183 nations with the goal of eliminating the threat of international wildlife trade. The convention, which is currently in session in Johannesburg, South Africa, has urged Mexico, the United States, and China to cooperate to end the totoaba trade and therefore save the vaquita. Here is a quote from the Washington Post article about the new agreement (link to article at bottom of post).

“Mexico is where they are caught. The United States is often where totoaba bladders, called maw, are trucked to ports. China is their final destination. CITES, as the convention is known, told the three governments to do a better job of sharing police information on seizures and busts to catch more criminals.

[…]

Though both the totoaba and vaquita were already getting the strongest protections under CITES, member nations meeting in Johannesburg decided Thursday that greater measures were needed.

[…]

Their new directive placed the weight of saving the vaquita on the backs of the three nations. They are “parties that are range, transit or consumer countries of totoaba,” said Zak Smith, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council who attended the meeting.

Based on seizure information from smuggling busts, China is the destination for most totoaba. Mexico and the United States are currently cooperating to police the trade, and CITES told China to join them. “With the sharing of this information, law enforcement could better define flows and target additional efforts,” Smith said. “Basically, the decisions call on Mexico, the U.S., and China to step up efforts to combat trafficking via seizures and sharing information with each other on seizures, and to raise awareness and conduct demand reduction activities.”

This is wonderful news, and adds yet another layer of pressure on these three nations to carry out their promises to save the vaquita by ending the totoaba trade. But as always, agreements on paper do not always translate into action. We need to keep the pressure on to make sure all three nations, with the support of the rest of the world, actually do what is necessary to combat the incredibly destructive and unnecessary totoaba swim bladder trade and save the precious vaquita from the eternal grip of extinction.

CITES

Here is an article from Thursday by Zak Smith of the Natural Resources Defense Council (link at bottom).

“Exciting news out of South Africa! Today, the world committed to help save the vaquita at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Parties agreed to crack down on trafficking in a fish species, the totoaba, which is wiping out the vaquita. The vaquita get caught and drown in gillnets used to catch totoaba.

It is a sad reality that the illegal trade in one CITES protected species, the totoaba, will cause the extinction of another CITES protected species, the vaquita, within 5 years if current trends continue. Now, with fewer than 60 vaquita remaining, there is simply no margin for error.

As I write this, governments from around the world are discussing the fate of many species at the 17th meeting of the CITES Conference of the Parties in Johannesburg, South Africa. In most instances, the Parties are finding comfort in knowing that, if proper steps are taken, we have time to reverse destructive trends. But for the vaquita, time is no longer a resource. While well intentioned, prior efforts were too timid, allowed to lapse, and in some cases undermined by unscrupulous stakeholders.

In recent years, Mexico has taken important steps, including increased enforcement to combat totoaba trade. And earlier this year the United States and China committed to combat the trade at the U.S. and China strategic and economic dialogue. But more must be done.

Thus, it is critical that we take all steps necessary to combat illegal trade in totoaba. If the vaquita is going to survive beyond the next CITES Conference of the Parties in 2019, Mexico, the United States, and China must work together to completely wipe out the totoaba trade. The actions adopted by governments at CITES support that effort and now Mexico, the U.S., and China must vigorously implement them.”

To read more about the agreement, check out these aforementioned articles:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/animalia/wp/2016/09/30/the-world-is-making-a-last-push-to-save-its-cutest-porpoise-from-extinction-it-probably-wont-work/

https://www.nrdc.org/experts/zak-smith/world-agrees-actions-stop-vaquitas-extinction

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/

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 three 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.

Petition and Thunderclap progress report

I can’t believe how successful our petition to make the gillnet ban permanent and our social media Thunderclap campaign have become in such a short amount of time!

We started these campaigns about a month ago, and could have never predicted the sheer number of people that would support them.

Here are the statistics:

Campaign Stats

In other news, PROFEPA and Sea Shepherd have been making tremendous progress in ban enforcement and net confiscation. Despite inclement weather, dozens of Totoaba nets have been retrieved from the water, and multiple poacher arrests have been made in recent weeks. It is wonderful to see the Mexican government working closely with NGOs to accomplish a mutually desired goal!

If you haven’t already, please sign our petition and Thunderclap! Thank you.

Petition

Thunderclap