Three live Vaquitas spotted!

Last month’s headline was “Three dead Vaquitas found.”

In a very welcome twist of fate, this month’s headline is the exact opposite.

From April 11 to 14, Drs. Barbara Taylor and Jay Barlow joined the crew of the Sea Shepherd M/Y Farley Mowat. Their goal was to spot Vaquitas, and they accomplished this goal in a big way. Between April 12 and 13, they spotted three separate Vaquitas, igniting even more optimism and hope for the future of this species.

However, these three individuals were seen in areas that are known to currently host rampant illegal fishing activity.

Click here to read more.

Sea Shepherd also used a drone to spot poachers using a gillnet at night. The fishermen quickly fled (their location was relayed to the Mexican Navy) and left their net behind, which Sea Shepherd retrieved from the water. Two scalloped hammerhead sharks and four cownose rays were already entangled, and unfortunately, the endangered hammerheads could not be saved. Since January, Sea Shepherd has removed 40 illegal gillnets and 13 longlines from the Vaquita’s range.

Sadly, Sea Shepherd is departing from the Gulf of California in the first week of May.

They will be arriving in San Diego on May 6, and we would like to give them a global “thank you” celebration for all of the amazing work they have done, and to show them that their efforts in the northern Gulf are highly appreciated (and desired again in the very near future). More updates to come on this.

From May 10 to 14, the 7th meeting of CIRVA, the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, will take place. The focus of this meeting will be the publication of the latest population estimate, based on acoustic surveys and the fall 2015 expedition.

A new course of action will be discussed based on this new estimate, and we all hope that the number is higher than expected/feared.

Regardless of the new population estimate, we will continue our efforts will full force. Our main goal is for the Mexican government to agree to our petition to make the gillnet ban permanent, and we can’t accomplish this without your help. Please sign and share this petition. For the Vaquita.

tinyurl.com/vaquitaban

Petition Poster

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

Morph

Morph

This is a drawing called “Morph.” It represents the complexity of the Vaquita’s situation by showing how vague the difference between the Vaquita and its killer—the gillnet—is. Is there a good side? Or are they both good—or neither? I believe that this is one of the few situations where the murderer is not an antagonist.

The fishermen are people with families that are doing all they can to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads.

The Vaquita is an innocent little porpoise that has never harmed a human being, yet has been forced to don the title of most endangered marine mammal. Their predicament is the unfortunate side effect of an economically efficient fishing method.

There will never be a story about the Vaquita without mention of gillnets. They go hand-in-hand, and always will. Let’s just hope that in the future we will be talking about the Vaquita’s conquering of gillnets, not vice versa.

In the end, it is up to the fishermen to make a very difficult choice: illegally fishing for temporary wealth but driving the Vaquita to extinction and destroying the Gulf’s ecosystem, or switching to admittedly expensive alternative gear that preserves the Vaquita and the food chain as well as giving their families eventual wealth. Our job is to convince them to choose the second one. In addition to spreading the word on social media, an undeniably great way to help with this problem is by donating. $50 can eliminate an entire day of gillnetting. Please consider clicking below and donating to what I believe is the worthiest cause on the planet, brought to you by GreaterGood.org. Thanks from the Vaquita.

https://m.theanimalrescuesite.greatergood.com/store/ars/item/62276/save-the-critically-endangered-vaquita

 

Beyond the surface

—with special guest co-author, VIVA Vaquita’s Cheryl Butner

Once you break through the surface, the Vaquita’s situation is extremely dynamic and complex. From afar, it may seem like a simple ‘problem and solution’ scenario. It is anything but.

There are a few realistic ways that the Vaquita can be saved. One is if the fishermen stop fishing and take up different careers. The other is if they continue to fish but with Vaquita-friendly fishing gear. Both haves positives and negatives, and both will be difficult to do.

There aren’t many viable career options for the people of the Gulf. You could own a shop, restaurant, or hotel, but these businesses are not going to be able to sustain a large family due to a lack of tourism. However, there is one form of tourism that could be a game-changer: ecotourism. Ecotourism is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people.” I have received many questions about this, and some people even said they were going on one of these tours to search for Vaquitas. I am filled with hope by seeing how many people would be willing to look for the Vaquita to support the fishermen who have switched careers from exploiter to explorer, but it is unfortunately not that simple. Cheryl Butner takes a closer look:

“A permit from the Mexican government is required to enter the Vaquita refuge, generally for research or scientific purposes. It is important that tourists realize that looking for Vaquita is not like going on a couple-hour whale watch trip. The areas where Vaquita have been spotted are not close to shore, Rocas Consag, which is the “center” of the Vaquita Refuge is something like 17 miles from San Felipe, as I recall it took us 2.5+ hours just to get out to the reserve one way from San Felipe, but our boat was pretty slow. Once you are out there, chances are incredibly slim that you will see Vaquita since they are so shy of boats and so small. It is was very common for fishermen to tell me that in the 20-30-40 years they have been fishing in the area they’ve never seen a Vaquita. In theory tourists could hire a boat to cruise around the outside of the refuge, but as long as they are aware it would be more to enjoy the Sea of Cortez and maybe see some whales, sea lions, rays, but not to get their hopes up about seeing Vaquita.  The Upper Gulf of California is a fantastic place to visit with its beautiful beaches and deserts, world-famous fishing, a wide variety of watersports, wonderful people, and incredible food (but don’t order seafood caught with gillnets!).  The best ways tourists can help Vaquita are (1) travel to this region and encourage their friends and family to travel here as well, (2) talk to everyone they meet and tell them they know about the Vaquita and they want to protect it from extinction, and (3) support the businesses that support the Vaquita.

But if travelers still want to attempt to see a Vaquita, they should go to San Felipe. Puerto Peñasco is pretty far from the refuge, unless they wanted to do a multi-day boat trip. As far as size of these communities, Puerto Peñasco is the biggest and has the most services for tourists and locals. There are fancy resorts, tour companies, everything you could want. San Felipe is smaller than Puerto Peñasco but still has the main things tourists are looking for. El Golfo de Santa Clara is very small, basically a fishing village with few tourist amenities. Most tourists that go there camp on the beach in their RVs and there are a few restaurants and a couple small hotels. I’ve heard that drug smuggling is pretty prevalent in Santa Clara, although I’m sure it’s well hidden from the few tourists that go there. I was there for a day so I wasn’t there long enough to make many observations.

Tourism in that region is actually really interesting. With the American tourists being scared away for several years now because of what our media is telling them, there have been the obvious really bad consequences, like any businesses related to tourism are struggling to stay open, if they haven’t closed already. But there has been a positive side to this too, in my opinion. As an example, I’ve been going to Tijuana for over 20 years. Before all the drug wars in Mexico and economy crashing in the US, it was pretty much like you would see in the movies, a lot of gringos going down there to drink, party, pick up prostitutes, get drugs (legal and illegal), and little kids on the streets begging for money. Now that the American tourists are pretty much gone, Tijuana has really cleaned up and is actually starting to be known as a cultural and food capital. Many newspapers, blogs, etc. have written about how Tijuana is a new gourmet food destination and even some of the shows on the Food Network and Travel Channel have featured Tijuana. Plus the economy in other parts of Mexico (particularly in the big cities) was not as hard-hit as the US was, so the numbers of Mexicans traveling and vacationing in their own country is way up, which is really great. So you see some of this in the Upper Gulf towns as well, especially with more Mexicans vacationing there now than there used to be. Hopefully the number of Mexican tourists will continue to grow to help make up for the drastically reduced numbers of American tourists, which will probably stay really low for a long time.

All of this makes me wonder if, in cities like Tijuana anyway, the American tourists had more of a negative influence than a positive one. Hopefully after Mexico gets control over the drug problems and is able to overcome this unwarranted stigma of being a dangerous country, it will be able to reinvent its image and get away from being known by Americans as a wild party destination, because the country has so many diverse and incredible experiences to offer tourists. It’s already starting in Tijuana, so hopefully the positive changes will continue.

CEDO’s website has a several year old list of businesses that switched from gillnet fishing during the buy-out program. I’m not sure how many of them are still operating.  From what I’ve heard the program didn’t go well because the American tourists stopped coming right around the time a lot of these businesses were just starting out, so they pretty much lost everything. I’ve even heard that some of them may have gone back to fishing to be able to support themselves and their families, if so that would mean they are fishing illegally since many gave up their permits in the buy-out,.  And who could really blame them really if they did. They thought they were doing the right thing and ended up getting burned. It was nobody’s fault, nobody could have foreseen the tourists completely disappearing in such a short period of time.  It’s important to remember that without the fishermen’s support, saving the Vaquita will be incredibly difficult, if not impossible.  That is why everyone – the Mexican government, the local communities, the NGOs, and anyone who cares about the Vaquita – needs to work together in order to prevent its extinction.”

Cheryl and I agree that the more feasible of the two options I mentioned earlier is the switch-out, where the fishermen use alternative fishing gear. There already is the Official Norm law, which is phasing out all shrimp gillnets with Vaquita-safe trawls within the next 3 years, starting in 2013. This is, as Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho put it, “pretty damned good news.”

There is still the gaping hole of finfishing, which could be even more dangerous to the Vaquita than shrimping. The development of effective, Vaquita-safe finfish nets is absolutely mandatory within the next few years if we hope to save the desert porpoise.

So, where does this leave us?

The average person will never see a Vaquita in their lifetime. They are one of the rarest and most secretive animals on Earth. And realistically, you cannot help with things like the development of new fishing gear and assisting fishermen with career changes. But there are still ways that you can make a real difference for the Vaquita. Spreading the word to people that you think could help such as celebrities and animal lovers (or both) is a great way to start (the Post-a-day Challenge is still going on!). Next you could cook for the Vaquita, or buy a VIVA Vaquita t-shirt. Also, my book can teach you a lot more about the Vaquita, while its profits go directly to Vaquita causes.

The important thing is that you are doing something. There are endless ways to help the Vaquita, so go ahead, make a marine mammal proud today.

Folktale

This is a folktale I wrote for one of my Literature classes. Please enjoy:

“SOME TIME AGO, in a time of great poverty, the people of El Golfo de Santa Clara, Mexico were in desperate need of money. Every day, the children would go out onto the dirt roads and search for coins, and the mothers would take off time from maintaining their homes to open fruit and vegetable stands in the village. But even with all of this, they still did not have enough money.

So the men had to go out on their little fishing boats with their nets to catch fish or shrimp. Slowly, the village became more and more wealthy. They were catching so many shrimp that they couldn’t even sell all of them! The entire village ate seafood every day, and times had never been better. The town started building bigger houses, and everyone sang and danced at night.

Occasionally, however, they would catch something in their nets called a Vaquita, a magical porpoise. It was so rare that most villagers did not even believe it existed. Seeing one was considered to be a good omen, but catching one was not. If you killed a Vaquita, you would be cursed with bad luck for a week. The fishermen could not let this risk keep them from fishing, however.

One day, a man caught a Vaquita. Afraid of getting bad luck, he threw the dead porpoise back into the water. Later that day, he was walking down the street and tripped over a rock. He broke both his wrists, rendering him useless as a fisherman for a long time. He was devastated, but in the back of his mind he knew that it was from catching that poor Vaquita.

A different man also caught a Vaquita, but he kept it onboard to bring it home to sell for meat. He was afraid that he would be cursed, but a few days went by without anything happening. Then one morning, when he went outside, he was shocked to see that all the houses were tiny again, all the tourists and buyers were gone, and the children were back in the streets picking up coins. The women were once more solemnly selling fruit and vegetables on the street corners. He saw a man who had broken wrists.

“Hello, sir. What happened to your wrists?”

“I caught a Vaquita, and on the same day I fell and broke my wrists.”

“I caught a Vaquita too, and now the entire village is poor again,” the man said. He knew that it was his fault.

But then the men got an idea. They went out in a boat to look for a Vaquita. After a while, they saw one of the beautiful creatures. It had its baby with it, which reminded the men of their families. They realized that the Vaquita deserved to live just as much as they did. With this realization, they returned to their village to share the news of the magical encounter. When they arrived, they were shocked by what they saw.

Everybody was dancing in the streets again. Their houses were bigger than ever. There were tables of rich meats, fruits, vegetables, and grains everywhere, and the entire village was cheering.

“God has given us back our wealth! Praise the Lord!”

The two men looked at each other. They knew that their encounter had caused this.

“Attention everybody! Today we saw a Vaquita with its baby. They were not in our net, but free, swimming in the ocean. This is how Vaquitas are meant to be seen. We must stop catching them with our nets. All of Earth’s creatures deserve to live, just like us. We got even more wealth from looking at those Vaquitas then we did when we caught them!”

The entire village went quiet. They all whispered to each other about what they just heard. “If we stop fishing and show people the Vaquita instead, we will be even richer! God wants us to protect His creatures!”

From that day on, the people of El Golfo de Santa Clara showed others the wonderful Vaquita, and they all lived happily ever after.”

Increasing awareness

Today I finished reading the North American Conservation Action Plan (NACAP) for the Vaquita. You can read it online here: http://www.cec.org/Storage/62/5476_Vaquita-NACAP.pdf (the English section starts on page 48).

It is a very in-depth paper from 2008 with extremely important and relevant information. It reaches a similar conclusion to many other papers in that the fishermen are willing to help the Vaquita as long as they do not lose their income for it and their families can still be sustained. Basically the entire world wants to help the Vaquita, including the fishermen, so really all that needs to be done is our governments work together to complete all of the goals required to save it before time runs out.

I was particularly interested in the matrix provided on pages 76-79 that charts all of the priorities for saving the Vaquita, as of 2007, according to the CEC. Many of the things listed have already been done, which is promising. Below is the section for increasing awareness, with the first box containing the action, the second showing the priority (more ! = more important), and the third showing the time frame. I am really excited to try to help make these things happen, and I am sure the Muskwa Club will play a crucial role in these endeavors. All of these things are past their due date, but that does not mean they shouldn’t be done. Earlier in the paper it states, “The [conservation] sector also stressed the value of having information flow smoothly among the various sectors [fishing, aquaculture, tourism, and conservation] so that problems can be identified and solutions sought in a timely, efficient manner.” This idea is extremely similar to the Muskwa Club’s idea of the Vaquita Preservation Alliance, which I will write about once the details are figured out after the Muskwa Club – American Cetacean Society Los Angeles meeting on October 25.

(Click the chart if the words are too small.)

Increasing awareness