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

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

Miracle

“What a country chooses to save is what a country chooses to say about itself.”
—Mollie Beattie

The last few weeks have been nothing short of a miracle.

First came the official start of the ban on all gillnets in the Vaquita’s entire range on April 10, which supposedly goes into effect today, Tuesday, April 28. This was proposed on Christmas, and was considered to possibly be the best Vaquita conservation news ever. However, there were some doubts as to how serious this ban was. Mexico could have easily just been saying what conservationists wanted to hear with no intentions of enacting the ban, let alone enforcing it. This fear was hardened by the continual postponement of the start of the ban. But finally, in April the ban was officially announced to begin on the 10th, with payments being made before the 28th (tomorrow), when enforcements will start.

But then the news started getting really good.

On April 16 Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto made the trip to San Felipe to inaugurate the new ban. He gave a passionate speech at the large celebration dedicated to the newfound hope for the Vaquita. This was an unprecedented event that went a long way in showing how committed the Mexican government is going to be to this ban.

Here is an article (click the link for a video) by Sandra Dibble about the ceremony and Mexico’s new plans:

‘With the small and rarely seen Vaquita porpoise verging on extinction, Mexico’s federal government is launching an unprecedented effort to save the species — through measures that include a dramatically expanded ban on gillnet fishing in the Upper Gulf of California over the next two years.

President Enrique Peña Nieto on Thursday traveled to this quiet Baja California fishing port to formally launch the new plan to save this small sea mammal endemic to the region. With fewer than 100 Vaquita now believed alive, scientists say the species is likely to disappear unless drastic measures are taken immediately.

With this latest plan to preserve the Vaquita, Mexico is “reaffirming the government’s commitment to the preservation of our environment,” Peña Nieto told a gathering of several hundred that included conservationists, the country’s naval and defense secretaries, as well as the governors of Sinaloa, Nayarit and Baja California.

The smallest and most endangered of the world’s 128 cetaceans, the Vaquita can grow to four or five feet long and weigh up to 120 pounds. Among its characteristics are dark rings around the eyes and dark patches on its lips. First identified in 1958, the Vaquita lives in the turbid waters of the Upper Gulf of California, where its population has declined sharply.

According to Armando Jaramillo, a marine biologist with Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change, the numbers have gone from 567 in an initial survey in 1997 to fewer than 100 today.

The announced extinction of the freshwater Baiji dolphin from China’s Yangtze River in 2006 has added urgency to conservationists’ calls.

The Vaquita “is a species emblematic of Mexico,” said Omar Vidal, director of the World Wildlife Fund in Mexico. “It’s like the Panda for China, not more, not less.”

Efforts to save the Vaquita have involved much cross-border collaboration, and present at Thursday’s event was Anthony Wayne, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, as well as representatives of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla.

The threat to the Vaquita “is a symptom of a broken system,” said Alejandro Robles, chairman of the Mexican environmental group Noroeste Sustentable. “The Upper Gulf has tremendously valuable resources. It has been the historical disorganization of the fishing sector that has created what we have today.”

Cooperation from the fishing community will be key to saving the Vaquita, Robles and other conservationists say. But in recent years, their efforts have met with stiff resistance from local fishermen, many of whom see their livelihood threatened by the gillnet ban and are skeptical of the Vaquita’s existence.

“There are fishermen who have lived their entire lives without seeing this animal,” said Carlos Avila, a 39-year-old fisherman and San Felipe native. “If we haven’t seen it, how are we going to preserve it?”

Peña Nieto’s announcement follows a scientific report last year by [CIRVA], the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, a group of experts appointed by the Mexican government. The report identified as the main threat to the Vaquita the drift gillnets favored by Avila and hundreds of other small fishermen in the region who make their living through their catch of shrimp and fish. The Vaquita become entangled in the nets and drown.

The report listed another growing threat in recent years: lucrative illegal fisheries in the Upper Gulf for another endangered species, the giant Totoaba fish. Tototaba are highly prized in China, where they are believed to have medicinal properties, and can command more than $10,000 per kilo, according to Mexican officials.

Thursday’s ceremony carried a message of increased federal enforcement in the region, which included a heavy presence of Mexican naval personnel and the presentation of Defender-class boats capable of traveling close to 70 miles per hour.

“Enforcement is absolutely critical,” said Barbara Taylor, a conservation biologist with the Southwest Fisheries science center. “It is going to be the critical thing on whether you save the species or not.”

The new measures are not the first by Mexico to preserve the Vaquita, but they go further than previous efforts. These include the prohibition of gill net fishing over an area of close to 1,150 square miles — about six times the size of a Vaquita refuge declared in 2005 where all fishing continues to be banned. The expanded zone covers the entire area where Vaquita have been sighted.

Another step involves the two-year compensation program — payments totaling close to $36 million annually — for fishermen who are forced to give up their gillnets and long hooks, as well as others in the local production chain.

Mexico’s federal government calculates that the compensation program for fishermen in San Felipe and another coastal community, El Golfo de Santa Clara, involves 806 small boats, or pangas, with 1,354 fishing permits (most have two permits). For the next two years, fishermen would receive about 7,000 pesos, or about $460 per month to stay away from their gillnets and long hooks.

“I have never seen the Mexican government put so much money into one species,” said Vidal of the World Wildlife Fund.

Sunshine Rodriguez, who heads the largest fishing federation in San Felipe, was once a staunch opponent of the gill net fishing ban. But he has endorsed the government’s latest plan.

“We don’t want to kill the oceans either,” he said. “We are certain that if there is another way of fishing and they come up with it, we’re going to use it.”

Still, Rodriguez and other fishermen have been resistant to alternative fishing methods being championed by the Mexican government and the conservation community, a light trawl known as a chango ecologico that does not threaten the Vaquita, saying that it uses more gasoline and brings in a smaller catch than the gillnets.

Robles of Noroeste Sustentable said the next two years will buy time for the region, but “to me the big question is what happens after two years; how we define sustainability in the Upper Gulf in the context of the Vaquita and the Totoaba, and also the needs of the community.”’

There have already been multiple Totoaba busts this month. First, two men were chased by police and dropped a backpack containing 90 swim bladders, and more recently, a man and woman were stopped with a large Totoaba on their boat. It is great to already see the enforcement in action, whether or not it is because of the new ban. The Mexican Navy has been given high-velocity Defender speedboats in order to effectively enforce the ban. The boats are capable of incredible speeds even while heavily armed, and it is apparent that they are in the right hands, given that there has already been a bust with one.

Recently, there have been dozens of articles about the latest developments, along with celebration among the conservation community. For the next few weeks, it is best for us citizens to give Mexico some time to see how serious they really are about everything, but while we are waiting, we can work on ending the illegal Totoaba trade. The root of all illegal trading is demand; if we can reduce the demand, there will be no reason to fish for Totoaba. You can spread the word about the situation, talk to your local Chinese food restaurant, and if you or someone you know visits/lives in China, talk to everyone you can and ask them to not buy Totoaba swim bladders or fish maw soup.

Sea Shepherd, an organization made famous by the hit show Whale Wars, has a new mission: Operation Milagro, which means miracle. They have been in the Sea of Cortez for a month, and are dedicated to doing all they can to save the Vaquita.

“We have called this campaign ‘Operation Milagro’ because, taking into account the staggeringly small number of Vaquitas left, sadly it would be nothing short of a miracle to see one swimming in the sea today,” said Captain Oona Layolle.

Well believe it or not, on the very next day, for the first time since 2013, Operation Milagro did just that.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
—Margaret Mead

 

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.