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/

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Perspective

This weekend I did a lot of catch-and-release fishing with my cousins in Barnegat, New Jersey, where I was able to witness firsthand many fish and almost as many ways to catch them. We caught at least 35 fish from 5 different species.

The experience was interesting for me in a few ways. First, I learned a lot about fishing. Since this exact activity is what is wiping out the Vaquita, an animal that I am dedicating a large portion of my life to, I want to learn everything I can about the other side of the duel. When I am getting ready for a tennis tournament, I don’t just work on my own game, I also study my opponent and how he plays. We need to do the same exact thing for the Vaquita vs. Fishermen matchup. That means listening to the fishermen. They are not our enemy. They are just humans doing their job. Unfortunately, their job is wiping out an entire species. We need to fully understand both sides of the dilemma in order to solve it. I have been researching a lot about gillnets, pangas, and everything about fishing in the Gulf. The simple answer is: they will not be able to stop fishing, so we need to get them to use Vaquita-safe gear. Fortunately, as you probably know, the Mexican government has announced that all shrimp gillnets will be switched to Vaquita-safe trawls within the next 3 years. Albeit a huge step, it is only the first of many needed to save the Vaquita.

The second way the experience was interesting was the sheer number of animals that we pulled out of a small bay during a few hours of fishing. At least 35. Or a flock of starlings I saw on the ground today of at least 200 birds. I then realized how vulnerable the number 200 is when you are talking about population. That flock of birds could fly into a reflective glass building and be gone. Just like that. There are at most 200 Vaquitas left on the planet. Gillnets are the Vaquita’s reflective glass building. Theoretically, the Vaquita could go extinct tonight. But hopefully they are still here tomorrow, so we can get to work on getting every last gillnet out of the Gulf of California and hanging them up forever.

The third way it was interesting is that I was able to put myself in the fishermen’s shoes. I pretended that I was a fisherman and that I needed to catch fish in order to feed my family. It really changed my perspective on the situation. I realized how fishing is anything but a hobby for the Gulf fishermen. It is absolutely a job, and a competitive one at that. As leading Vaquita expert Barbara Taylor once said of fishing in the Gulf, “If you don’t catch any shrimp, your neighbor will.” When I put myself in the fishermen’s situation, there was a new urgency to catch each fish, and I can only imagine what the pressure is like in real life. If I were them, I would use the best gear possible and nothing else. Fortunately, the Vaquita-safe trawls are as effective as gillnets, but more expensive. We need more awareness, therefore money, towards the Vaquita and the switch-out program. So please, spread the word and raise money in any way you can possibly think of. I would love to hear your ideas and questions in the comments section. Thank you!

It’s not time to let go

Okay, so I found a link to an article in a New York Times blog post. The article, here, by Erik Vance, is on an extremely personal and controversial topic:

Should we let the Vaquita go extinct?

I had to close my eyes and calmy inhale to even make it through the article. The answer is absolutely, positively, no way in the world, not in a million years, no. He says that perhaps we should let the Vaquita go in order to get the fishermen on board with saving other endangered species of the Gulf. I am not sure if/how that would even work, but there is no way that the scientists and conservationists who have worked on saving the Vaquita for their entire careers would just let the Vaquita ‘slip away.’ I am not arguing with the fact that the Vaquita is in a tough situation right now, and that there has been phenomenal effort by the Mexican government to seemingly little avail. I am not arguing with the fact that the Vaquita is a life-changing ‘nuisance’ to the fishermen that they will likely never see in their entire lives, yet they have been very cooperative with NGOs and the government for the most part.

But this is about the big picture. The Vaquita cannot be a canary in a coal mine. It is not an option for us to learn from our mistakes on the Vaquita. We have already lost the Baiji because of human activities. Those beautiful dolphins were sacrificed so we could learn what not to do with an endangered species. The Vaquita is the test. If we can save the Vaquita, we can do anything. Tigers, pandas, rhinos, polar bears, and every other endangered species can benefit from us saving the Vaquita, not letting it go extinct. The Baiji has already filled that role.

It is also about the little picture. The Vaquita simply deserves to live. If you were born before 1958, then the Vaquita was discovered in your lifetime. Now it could go extinct within the next few years. Your life could completely encompass our knowledge of the existence of an entire species. We definitely do not want that. The Vaquita as an animal is extremely unique. We will absolutely never have a species like the Vaquita again if we lose Phocoena sinus.

So the real question is, “Now that we know the Vaquita can’t go extinct, how are we going to save it?” In June, an enormous step was taken by the Mexican government in the form of a new regulation that will phase out all shrimp gillnets to Vaquita-safe trawls within the next 3 years. This is great news, but this doesn’t mean our work here is done. The government still has to pull through with their promise, as well as develop safe trawls for finfish, not just shrimp. For now, you can help the Vaquita by raising awareness, not buying seafood caught in gillnets, and raising money towards the switch-out program. For more details, visit https://vlogvaquita.com/2013/07/14/update-the-big-3/.

So my point is, there is no way we can give up, especially after all this time and effort. This is where we need to explore the limits of human teamwork to save something that’s not a human. The Vaquita has never done anything to us, so why should we accept murdering every last one? This adorable, innocent little porpoise deserves every drop of blood, sweat, and tears we can squeeze out of ourselves. And even if the Vaquita does eventually go extinct, I could not live with myself knowing that we didn’t try our hardest to rescue it.

We need to at least, as my tennis coach would say, go down swinging.

Why?

You might ask, “Why do I help the Vaquita?”

And my answer is, “Why wouldn’t I?”

I cannot force myself to think of a world without Vaquita.

They have helped shape much of my young life, from the early online research to now.

They have inspired me to do things I never thought were possible—or had the courage to do.

They have given me the confidence to stand up and make a difference in this dying world.

They have presented me with endless ideas for poems, books, and artwork.

They have saved me with the knowledge that I am saving them, and they still have a chance.

The Vaquita has given me so much, and now it is my turn to give back to them.

I know the day the Vaquita dies will make me want to do the same.

It is this fear of loss that has pushed me for years to make a change.

And you may ask, “Why save the Vaquita?”

And my answer will always be, “Why not?”

Baiji

The only cetacean known to go extinct due to human activity is the Baiji, Lipotes vexillifer. In 2006, after an intense, 6-week search in all of the Baiji’s historic range, it was considered extinct. Don’t let the Vaquita be the second. Learn more about the Baiji by clicking on the links below.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baiji

http://www.nmfs.noaa.gov/pr/species/mammals/cetaceans/chineseriverdolphin.htm

2 years left

If the Vaquita continues to decline at the same rate as it has been, it will be extinct in 2 YEARS! We need to do something about it now, and YOU could be the one to donate the last dollar needed to set the buy-out in full swing! Check out the Blogroll to donate.