CITES agrees to protect vaquita!

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

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

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

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

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

CITES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Should we breed the vaquita in captivity?

For as long as we have known about the vaquita, gillnets have been killing more individuals than are being born. The upper Gulf of California has been a danger zone for the species ever since humans started fishing there, and unfortunately, vaquita don’t live anywhere else.

Yet.

Even though gillnets are now permanently banned in the vaquita’s range, there will still be illegal fishing if compensation and/or nighttime enforcement issues are not fixed immediately. These are indeed desperate times. So desperate, in fact, that no option is off the table when it comes to salvaging this species.

The idea of ex-situ conservation (captive breeding) for the vaquita has not been given much thought, until recently.

Here is ¡VIVA Vaquita!’s official position statement on the issue:

“The issue of possible live-captures and ex-situ conservation (generally known as captive breeding) of the vaquita has recently been much talked about and debated. This results from the 2016 CIRVA report, which for the first time, recommended evaluation of the prospects and steps needed for captive breeding of the species, as part of the conservation plan. This is a very complex issue, and there are a variety of different views within our organization on this proposal.

After detailed discussion, ¡VIVA Vaquita! has come to a consensus. Due to the undeniable fact that the current efforts to stop the decline of the species (however, well-intentioned) are simply not working, we are not opposed to evaluating and considering ex-situ conservation measures for this species. However, we emphasize that the primary focus and priority for long-term conservation of the species must be in-situ—that is protection and recovery of the species in its natural habitat. That can only happen with a permanent and complete cessation of all gillnet fishing within the species range. This is an absolute pre-requisite to any attempts to save the species, and must remain the top priority. Any work towards captive breeding efforts must not in any way decrease the focus, resources, or funding applied to maintaining and effectively enforcing the gillnet ban.”

We will not allow the vaquita to go extinct, which means if captive breeding is the only option left, we will try our best to accomplish it. There is still a long way to go in terms of determining whether or not it would be safe for the animals (some porpoise species do well in captivity), or how we would do it (underwater pen in the Gulf, tank on land, etc.), but if necessary, we could have captive vaquitas by next year. Too much later, and there may be no vaquitas left to save.

To learn more, check out these in-depth articles:

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/07/scientists-mull-risky-strategy-save-world-s-most-endangered-porpoise

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/radical-conservation/2016/jun/08/vaquita-captive-breeding-ex-situ-panda-porpoise-extinction

And listen to this interview with the always-wonderful Barb Taylor:

http://www.sciencefriday.com/segments/how-can-we-keep-the-endangered-vaquita-from-vanishing/

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

#ISTVD2016 is almost here!

Buckle up! International Save the Vaquita Day 2016 is THIS Saturday, July 9!

This year is going to be bigger than ever, and we will have venues all over the world. Click the link below to learn more about the event and see a list of venues (there may be even more venues that have yet to be confirmed). Find a table near you and join the excitement!

http://www.vivavaquita.org/international-save-the-vaquita-day-2016.html

The event will kick off tomorrow morning, July 7, in Washington, D.C. at the Mexican Embassy, where conservationists will meet with government officials to present the success of the petition that is asking to make the gillnet ban permanent (https://www.change.org/p/make-the-gillnet-ban-permanent-to-save-the-vaquita).

Due to how dire the situation is, there has been recent discussion in the Vaquita conservation community about the possibility of using captive breeding as a last-ditch strategy to save the Vaquita. Here is VIVA Vaquita’s official position statement on this issue:

http://www.vivavaquita.org/vaquita-captive-breeding-statement.html

Get ready for #ISTVD2016!

ISTVD

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

Three dead Vaquitas found

A Vaquita conservationist’s biggest fear is the death of one of these magnificent creatures. This month, we are living the nightmare.

Three dead Vaquitas have been found in the past few weeks.

March madness indeed. Based on lacerations found during the autopsies, it is apparent that gillnet entanglement is the likely cause of death for these animals. Of course, this means that there is still illegal fishing happening, and that said fishing is killing Vaquitas, a species that cannot afford to lose even one individual.

The mortality rate of Vaquitas needs to be zero. For this to happen, enforcement needs to be stepped up permanently, fishing communities need to be educated and aided with sustainable fishing, and Totoaba swim bladder demand in Asia needs to be reduced.

To convince the Mexican government to take action on these issues, please sign this petition:

https://www.change.org/p/make-the-gillnet-ban-permanent-to-save-the-vaquita

Thanks to a much-needed increase in enforcement (by both the government and NGOs) in the past year, it is not too late to save the Vaquita. However, it is awfully close to it.

Here is a translated statement from PROFEPA:

“Faced with the possibility that these specimens died in gillnets or because of human activities, authorities will intensify inspection activities and night, land, and sea surveillance, especially at sites identified as Totoaba networks; in addition to seeking a rapprochement with the fishing guild to sensitize its members to refrain from poaching activities and forbidden arts.”
We need to make sure that they stand behind these words. On the human side of the effort, things are much better than they were a few years ago, but the Vaquita is still just a death or two away from eternal doom. Now isn’t the time to be casual or lax.

Now is the time to act decisively.

Dead Vaquita found by Sea Shepherd

Dead Vaquita found by Sea Shepherd

An essay on conservation

“I really wonder what gives us the right to wreck this poor planet of ours.”
—Kurt Vonnegut

Conservation is not the most glorious job. It is not the most fun job. It is not the highest-paying job. It is barely even talked about in job conversations.

However, it may just be the world’s most important job.

You are probably shaking your head or maybe even already clicking off of this page in disgust.

What about doctors? Teachers? Soldiers? You have to be joking! You think that tree-huggers are more important than brain surgeons or policemen putting their lives on the line?! This kid is an arrogant lunatic!

I understand and accept that this may sound completely insane to many, if not most, people, so let me clear a few things up. I am not saying anything about the people themselves who work in any of these fields. I’m sure there has been a conservationist that was a murderer, and the same for all of the jobs above. Also, I am not saying conservationists are necessarily more brave, smart, admirable, valiant, deserving, etc. than those in the above fields of work. I am also not saying that conservation is more valuable to our society than saving human lives or defending our country.

This is where the importance of my original statement’s wording comes into play. I said that conservation may be the world’s most important job. I did not say that conservation is the most important job for somebody that is sick. I didn’t say it is the most important job for our cities or countries. And I didn’t say it was the most important job for humanity in general.

It is the most important job for the world. All of the jobs above have one thing in common: they are only to help other people. Many people don’t realize that humanity is not the only thing that matters.

Conservation is the act of protecting nature from harm. And the last time I checked, there is quite a bit of harm being inflicted on nature. It could be said that conservation is literally the act of “saving the world.”

It is a very rare and admirable thing when a person truly believes that he and his species are not more important than any other animal on the planet. Yes, we are likely the smartest animal (key word, likely), and you may say, “Of course we should care more about our own species, it’s only natural! A chimpanzee wouldn’t help a human instead of another chimpanzee!”

This may be true. However, there is one important distinction that is the driving force of my entire argument (and conservation in general, for that matter): Chimpanzees aren’t chopping down rainforests, destroying the ozone layer, or killing innocent species in nets just to throw their corpses back into the water because they weren’t the target catch.

We are the only species that is truly destroying our planet. Chimpanzees have no responsibility for human welfare, because chimpanzees do not destroy human habitat or murder us by the millions for traditional “medicines.” It is absolutely impossible to justify the act of destroying our planet and then not trying to fix our damages. Conservationists are the people who are in charge of fixing those damages.

Human selfishness and greed has brought our entire planet to the brink. Just think of how well the planet’s species would be doing if humans never existed. More species are endangered now than ever before, and we are in the beginning of a sixth mass extinction.

And the one thing that people don’t realize is that we are included in this extinction. How can humans survive without plants and animals? If we continue this rate of destruction, we will not only ruin the planet, we will be committing suicide.

Here are three videos by Conservation International about our planet and what we are doing to it (view all of them here).

A few weeks ago I had a lengthy conversation with someone who was opposed to our petition to make the gillnet ban permanent. He believed that it would be unfair to remove the main livelihood available in the Gulf communities, and that the ban would cause hunger, crime, and poverty in the area. He said that we conservationists would need to teach the fishermen how to use the alternative fishing gear, as well as send down truckloads of food for the families that are not receiving compensation. While he had many good points throughout the conversation (up until he said that he will never believe that gillnets are the cause of the Vaquita’s plight), he was essentially misinformed in many facets and represented a very common issue that conservationists have to deal with.

Conservationists cannot do this alone. It is important to remember that our job is to protect the environment. We are not human rights activists; that is a completely separate and, of course, very important job. In this case, our main priority is saving the Vaquita. We will do whatever we can (within reason) to make that happen. We propose a ban, for example, to the government, and then it is their job to decide whether or not it should be put into place. While making this decision, they carefully weigh every side of the situation, human and animal. They choose what laws are created, not conservationists. They are also responsible for things like compensation and training.

Once again, our job is to protect the environment and its species. And ironically, we are protecting the environment from our own species. In many cases, humans are the enemy of conservationists, but in the Vaquita’s situation, most of the fishermen are not the enemy. The real enemies are the Totoaba cartels and the Asian markets that fuel them. But any fisherman that fishes illegally is, of course, a criminal. The shrimp fishermen who fish illegally in the Vaquita’s range are generally just driven by the hunger of their families, not the quick riches that the Totoaba cartels are after. Nonetheless, what they are doing must be stopped as well.

There is nothing that would make us Vaquita conservationists happier than seeing every Gulf fisherman making a good living by fishing sustainably or giving ecotours as the Vaquita’s population recovers and thrives. This is slightly unrealistic, but, for the most part, it can be accomplished. The hunger, crime, and poverty in Mexico have been occurring for much longer than we have even known about the Vaquita, let alone since the two-year ban started last year.

If Mexican fishing communities wish to prosper, going back to killing every animal in the ocean is not the answer. To see change, we need to change. Here we have a wonderful opportunity presented before us; an opportunity to pioneer a new way of living, a way of living that will soon be mandatory: peacefully coexisting with nature. And whatever happens in the Gulf will have global implications; a solution to this problem will echo across the conservation community, and therefore affect every last species.

Mexico has a chance to save the world.