Miracle on the water!

Yesterday I posted that the Vaquita Expedition had just begun. Well, only 5 days in, and something incredible has already happened. Check out Dr. Barb Taylor’s message from only a few hours ago:

“So, the news will be out soon so I think I can let you Vaquita fans know. We saw 3 Vaquitas yesterday. Minister Pacchiano was due to come for an enforcement meeting in San Felipe and had a big visit orchestrated with the governor of Baja, the head of fisheries nationally (Mario Aguilar) and in Baja, a huge number of Navy brass, and the head of Profepa. Juan Carlos suggested that we go back to the spot we saw Vaquita yesterday to try to see them again. To make a long story short…we did (see 3 Vaquitas…Juan Carlos sighting) and I got the Minister on a pair of big eyes to see Vaquitas…and even Aguilar saw Vaquitas!

Just amazing! Those Vaquitas knew how important this was. They stayed in one place for about 20 minutes. They were still tiny triangles, but that just made the dignitaries all the more amazed that we found them.

I rode back in the super fast Navy boat with the governor of Baja in the co-pilot seat and pitched him the importance of making Baja a global example of solving the gillnet problem and working with California to develop markets to support Vaquita-friendly seafood. He basically translated that in the press conference that followed.

Needless to say…we’re all pretty excited. What are the odds?”

-Barb

I hope this remarkable and inspirational event is an indicator of things to come on this ever-important survey.

If similar advancements are made in the near future, this expedition may prove to be the most pivotal moment in the fight to save this little porpoise.

Viva Vaquita!

Maria Cleofas

 

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2015 Expedition

The 2015 Vaquita survey and expedition has just begun! It will be a 70-day expedition hoping to photograph and get the most accurate population count of Vaquitas in years. It will also serve as a public awareness platform, with the best opportunity coming in the form of a special segment on the extremely popular CBS news show 60 Minutes. This survey will hopefully reignite the Mexican government’s interest in the conservation of this indescribably valuable species. It will also paint a clearer picture of what the situation is and what will need to be done. All in all, this expedition will be a fitting end to a very good year for the Vaquita, given the dire straits of the past few years. Our work has just begun, but nevertheless, it has begun. If you would like to donate to the expedition, please click below. Thank you so much.

https://www.gofundme.com/savethevaquita

Thanks

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

How to save the Vaquita

Happy World Wildlife Day! Here is a great post by the President of The Ocean Foundation, Mark J. Spalding, and former Executive Director of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, Tim Ragen:

“EFFORTS TAKEN TO date by Mexico, the United States, and the global community have been helpful, but have not been sufficient to save the Vaquita from extinction. Conserving the species will require a fundamental change in the nature and rigor of recovery efforts—to save the Vaquita the next round of protection measures cannot be half-hearted, indecisive, or poorly implemented. We need a strategy that can be implemented immediately and then sustained for the long-term—it is simply disingenuous to suggest anything less will do. The following are twelve tasks that must be accomplished if we are to prevent the Vaquita from vanishing from the face of the earth.

Mexico must:

  1. Remove—in perpetuity—all gillnets from the species’ full range, including those that are being used legally to catch shrimp and finfish, and those that are being used illegally to catch the endangered Totoaba. We have long known that gillnets are the primary factor causing the decline of the Vaquita.
  2. Staunchly enforce the prohibition on gillnets using both aircraft, vessels, and aggressive judicial retribution. A prohibition on gillnets is effectively meaningless unless the Mexican government enforces that prohibition.
  3. Require all fishermen currently using gillnets to fish for shrimp to shift immediately to small trawls (e.g., red selectiva) if they want to fish within the historic range of the Vaquita. Small trawls are used effectively to fish for shrimp in other parts of the world and they have been shown to be effective in the northern Gulf of California. Switching gears will require some adaptability by fishermen, but does not pose an insurmountable problem.
  4. Require all fishermen currently using gillnets to target finfish to shift immediately to alternative, Vaquita-safe gear if they want to fish within the Vaquita’s historic range. An entangled Vaquita will drown in a gillnet used for finfish just as quickly as it will drown in a shrimp gillnet.
  5. Work with the United States, China, and other Asia nations to end the illegal fishing and trade of Totoaba. Gillnets are being used illegally to fish for the endangered Totoaba; the swim bladders of these fish are then sold in Asian black markets. Few human activities are as destructive to endangered wildlife populations as these absurd black markets.
  6. Begin training programs to educate and train fishermen in the use of new, Vaquita-safe fishing gear for both shrimp and finfish. Vaquita recovery efforts are not intended to harm fishermen, who will require assistance to shift to safe gear types.
  7. Support the work of international scientists to maintain the acoustic monitoring system developed over the past 5 years. Keeping track of the status of the remaining Vaquita population is critical to guide recovery efforts. The acoustic monitoring system used for this purpose is the best possible monitoring strategy available under these circumstances.

The United States must:

  1. Bring the full weight of key administrative departments and agencies to bear on this issue. Those include the Department of Commerce (including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the International Trade Administration), the Department of State, the Department of the Interior (including the Office of Law Enforcement in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), and the Marine Mammal Commission. Conservation organizations also are key partners in this recovery effort.
  2. The Department of Commerce, including NOAA and the International Trade Administration, must implement a full embargo of all seafood products caught in all Mexican fisheries if all gillnets are not removed immediately from the Vaquita’s historic range. NOAA also must continue to provide scientific expertise to Vaquita recovery efforts.
  3. The Department of State must send a message of strong concern to its Mexican counterparts regarding the pending extinction of the Vaquita. That message must convey that the United States stands ready to assist with recovery efforts, but that it also expects Mexico to implement, in a full and effective manner, the recovery measures needed to save the Vaquita. The Department of State also must make it clear to their Asian counterparts that the United States fully intends use all means available to it to stop the illegal trade in Totoaba.
  4. The Office of Law Enforcement of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of the Interior, must lead efforts to halt the illegal trade of Totoaba parts. Much of the illegal trade apparently goes through southern California, but it must be halted in all areas under U.S. jurisdiction.
  5. Conservation organizations are key partners in this recovery effort. Funding will be needed to support recovery efforts by the Mexican and U.S. governments. The conservation community may have access to resources not otherwise available to government departments and agencies, and they have the flexibility to respond more quickly to funding needs.

There is hope but we, collectively, face a choice. We must make it now and there’s no going back if we fail. If we cannot save this species when the problem is so abundantly clear and manageable, then our hopes and aspirations for other endangered species are little more than whimsical. The question is not whether we can do this—it’s whether we will.”

They bring up some great points in this article. First, they address that the Vaquita is in a better situation than most other endangered species. Obviously they are still in deep trouble, but in essence, if we can’t force ourselves to save the Vaquita, we might as well give up on the species that have more complicated threats.

Basically, this is article is a list of things that the governments of Mexico and the United States must accomplish to save the Vaquita. You are kidding yourself if you don’t believe the government is the only thing controlling the fate of the species. The government is what creates, implements, and enforces all the laws. The government is the only thing that can stop fishermen from using gillnets.

So, where does that leave us civilians?

In the past, I have always said sustainable seafood is a great way to help the Vaquita. And it absolutely is. But in this time of crisis, it will not be the thing that turns around the situation. Now, what we need to focus on is making sure the Mexican and U.S. governments accomplish the above 12 goals. The only way to do this is to tell them we appreciate their efforts up to this point, but that even more is needed in order to save the Vaquita. An extremely easy way to do this is to sign and share petitions such as:

VIVA Vaquita Petition

Save the Whales Petition

Greenpeace Petition English

Greenpeace Petition Spanish

Spreading the word, and especially these petitions, puts tremendous pressure on the government to implement the necessary plans to save the Vaquita. The official 2-year ban on all gillnets in the Vaquita’s full range was supposed to begin on March 1, but now it has been postponed to begin a month later, on April 1. We hope this delay was only because they still needed time to finalize legalities, distribute compensation, and prepare to enforce the ban. We need to make sure the Mexican government is 100% serious about this ban, because otherwise, there is absolutely no chance for the Vaquita. And before the next two years are up, the Mexican government needs to create a long-term plan. But this two year ban, if properly enforced, is a perfect first step. It should allow enough time for the development of Vaquita-safe nets for every type of legal fishery, and also be a test for the Mexican government to see if they can enforce a ban successfully. The illegal Totoaba fishery will prove an extremely difficult test to stop, but if enough people work together, it can be done.

The next few years are going to be remembered forever as either a complete failure to solve a relatively simple environmental issue, or as one of the greatest conservation success stories of all time. Let’s make it the latter.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Happy Valentine’s Day! Let’s make this V-day one for the Vaquita!

Valentine's Day Vaquita

If you missed it when it was live, please watch Dr. Anna Hall’s Vaquita lecture here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pLqkbkJ_fJs.

It is definitely a must-watch with some wonderful information and insight from a world-renowned porpoise expert.

Some ways you can help the Vaquita on V-day are buying my Vaquita book, writing a letter to the Mexican government showing your appreciation for their actions, donating to CEDO or VIVA Vaquita, sharing a Vaquita post on social media, or making a sustainable seafood dish. It all makes a difference.

With love from the Vaquita.

Silver linings

There’s no other way to put it. The Vaquita is in a terrible situation.

There are fewer than 100 remaining, and they all live in a relatively miniscule area. They have consistently declined for as long as we have known about the species, and it could be getting even worse. There is a lot of conflict among governments and NGO’s in terms of who wants to help the Vaquita and who doesn’t. However,

“A certain darkness is needed to see the stars.”

We must look at the silver linings of the very dark storm cloud that is the Vaquita’s situation.

The Mexican President, Enrique Peña Nieto, and his committees are being extremely helpful, which is obviously a huge step. There are many confidential progressions being made in the “Vaquita Headquarters,” many of which are positive.

Conservation group LightHawk will be “flying monthly aerial surveys over the northern Gulf of California” this year to monitor the fishing activities in the Gulf, both legal and illegal. This kind of surveillance is a major part of enforcing the new laws to protect the Vaquita: http://www.planeandpilotmag.com/products/whats-new/lighthawk-flies-to-help-save-endangered-porpoise.html

Some more great news is that the Colorado River has finally reunited with the Gulf of California. What this means for the Vaquita, it’s hard to say. But let’s just admire some great restoration work: http://voices.nationalgeographic.com/2014/05/19/a-sacred-reunion-the-colorado-river-returns-to-the-sea/

Another example of great Vaquita conservation is the San Diego Zoo: http://blogs.sandiegozoo.org/2014/10/31/helping-vaquita-porpoises/

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium, famous for their dolphin Winter (the subject of both Dolphin Tale movies), has started a major campaign to save the Vaquita: http://www.seewinter.com/get-involved/winters-hope-vaquita

Two more petitions that we would really appreciate you to sign are:

https://secure.oceanconservancy.org/site/Advocacy;jsessionid=8399D1166361249BAC174C8F19764608.app260b?cmd=display&page=UserAction&id=846&s_src=14WAXAXXXX&s_subsrc=14AVQE

http://www.change.org/p/prevent-the-extinction-of-the-vaquita-porpoise-the-world-s-most-endangered-marine-mammal

I have a second edition of my book in the works, so keep an eye out for that in the near future…

Finally, many of you remember the Vaquita Blanket Challenge. It was a challenge (much like the ALS Ice Bucket one) where we encouraged participants to get wrapped up in two blankets and try to escape in under 97 seconds (the number of Vaquitas left). Though there were some wonderful participants, many people either didn’t have the time to film themselves doing this or simply were embarrassed. Therefore, the t-shirt campaign for people who had taken the challenge did not thrive by any means. In light of this, I have created a new t-shirt campaign that isn’t related to the challenge. Please check it out, and hopefully purchase one for yourself or a loved one (it makes the perfect Christmas gift for that animal lover in your life). Our goal is 50 shirts, but I believe we can surpass that. 100% of profits go to the Muskwa Club, Inc., now an official non-profit organization, and you can even make an additional donation directly to them. The campaign runs the entire month of November, so you will receive the shirts by Christmas.

Thank you!

https://www.booster.com/savethevaquita97

T-shirt

Puppeteers

Godfather Vaquita

The fishing season has begun. It runs during every month that has the letter “r” in it, which is September to April.

Enormous actions need to be taken right now by the Mexican and US governments in order to save the Vaquita. This could be the last year with the Vaquita if the fishermen are allowed to fish in their range this season:

http://www.cnn.com/2014/08/19/opinion/vidal-endangered-vaquita/

Our governments need to work together and make a decision now. Like puppeteers, they have complete control of the entire species, as I represented above. To help them make this historical decision, please sign this petition:

http://act.oceanconservancy.org/site/MessageViewer?dlv_id=41469&em_id=30824.0