IWC approves new measures to save vaquita, but more is needed

The International Whaling Commission has just announced a plan that entails “greater enforcement of a gillnet ban throughout the vaquita’s range, support for efforts to remove existing gillnets and eliminate all transit and trade in totoaba products, as well as support for vaquita monitoring programs.” This, along with last month’s CITES agreement (see previous post), is obviously good news. Practically everyone has voiced their support for vaquita conservation by now, from conservationists, to organizations and commissions, to government officials, and even to fishermen.

But as we have been saying for years, words and laws do not directly translate into real world success.

Here is a very important article about a new study by researchers at UC San Diego, which explains that in order to actually save the vaquita, we need to approach this issue from a different perspective, because what he have been doing so far has not succeeded in reversing this species’ drastic decline:

With fewer than 60 individuals left, the world’s smallest porpoise, the vaquita marina (Phocoena sinus), continues to balance on the edge of extinction. Constant pressures from conservation groups have lead to a two-year emergency gillnet ban, which will end in May 2017, and government-led efforts are now pushing fishers to use gear that won’t threaten the vaquita through bycatch.

Despite these steps, in a new study my colleagues and I warn that unless further big changes are made in the Upper Gulf of California, Mexico, we may soon be saying goodbye to this charismatic little animal.

The history of vaquita conservation is long and convoluted. It has been characterized by intermittent top-down management interventions that have often had little more than short-term outlooks. These have perpetuated the decline of the vaquita population, which is now estimated to contain less than 25 reproductively mature females.

The new Conservation Letters study describes how the gillnet ban now in effect, and the introduction of new trawl gear may address the immediate problem of vaquita bycatch but even taken together, they will likely be yet another short-term – and, most likely, ineffective – attempt to pull the vaquita back from the brink of extinction.

Gillnets sit in midwater and are made of fine line, which is difficult to see in the Upper Gulf’s murky waters. Similar to almost all cetacean bycatch, vaquita are unable to free themselves once entangled and risk being drowned while held under water.

Trawl gear is an alternative that reduces the risk of bycatch. These heavy gears are towed along the seafloor catching any animal not quick enough to outswim the mouth of the approaching net. The mouth of the net is much smaller than the area of a gillnet, which reduces the effective catch area that poses a risk to the vaquita. Also, the use of trawl gear is noisy, more easily visible and therefore more easily avoidable than gillnets for cetacean species.

But this alternative is more expensive. After accounting for lower catch rates, higher fuel expenditure and the cost of the switch from gillnets to trawls, we estimated that an annual subsidy of at least US$8.5 million would be needed to compensate fishers in the Upper Gulf for loss of employment and earnings. Long term, the economic losses from the new management interventions could have one or two side effects: 1) a reliance on subsidies and/or 2) increased illegal fishing activities.

What’s more, an endangered yet highly prized fish is caught in these waters with gillnets. Swim bladders known as buche from the endangered totoaba (Totoaba macdonali) can sell for tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars per kilo, depending on the size of the bladder and the demand of the Chinese market. This “aquatic cocaine” complicates the plight of the vaquita because illegal fishing to catch the totoaba pose a risk to the few vaquita that remain.

There are also significant ecological risks to the new management plan. The impacts of trawl gear to seafloor species are significantly greater than those posed by gillnets because they are dragged along sea floors, reducing productivity in many shelf sea ecosystems and negatively affecting community compositions and diversity. In just 26 days of gear testing in the Upper Gulf prior to the gillnet ban, 30 percent, or 2,819 square kilometers (1,715 square miles), of the Upper Gulf biosphere reserve’s total area was scoured by the new trawl gears. Longer term, we warn in our study this could have severely detrimental consequences for the health of the Upper Gulf marine ecosystem.

My colleagues and I believe there is little use in pointing the finger of blame at this point, as seems to be the case in many articles discussing the fight for the vaquita. Instead, the vaquita situation urgently needs a new way of thinking, a paradigm shift.

Consistent exclusion of fishers from the design of management plans, typically driven by conservation groups and implemented by the government, has led to polarized opinions and a large divide between what should be a close collaboration between fishers and conservation agencies. Rushed, short-sighted management must be replaced by longer-term goals that involve local communities and address conservation challenges associated with both the vaquita and the totoaba.

Community support of management measures, in particular, seems essential for long-term success in conservation stories. We recommend that the local communities in the Upper Gulf require external investment. Specifically, the development of infrastructure, such as road networks to connect fishers to new markets and processing facilities, would benefit the current situation by providing new employment opportunities as well as increased returns on ever dwindling fish catches.

Education is also key. This should include programs to educate fishers in the consequences of unsustainable fisheries practices, techniques to help add value to their catches and alternative livelihoods to fishing such as tourism or potential service industry employment.

At present there are few employment alternatives for fishers in the Upper Gulf. Often, men are recruited into the fishery as young as 15 and the common story of “once a fisher, always a fisher” prevails. We highlight that an investment in education could both help promote marine stewardship as fishers better understand the longer-term consequences of current fisheries practices. It could also provide the younger generation with the training to build new business or follow paths in higher education instead of joining the local fisheries.

As with many of the world’s ecological problems, overcapacity seems to be key. In the case of the upper Gulf fisheries, too many people are catching too many fish from finite stocks. Continued overexploitation of any natural resource ultimately means communities risk destroying the finite natural resources they depend on.

To put it simply, communities in the Upper Gulf of California need help to reduce both the number of fishers currently fishing and the number of future fishers entering the fisheries. This will help promote alternative, nonextractive activities in order to alleviate the impacts that current fisheries practices have on fish stocks, the vaquita and, with the new trawl gear intervention, sea floor habitats.

A meeting in late July of this year between Presidents Obama and Peña Nieto concluded with a tentative proposal for a permanent extension of the Upper Gulf’s gillnet ban and a crack down on the totoaba trade. Although eliminating vaquita bycatch is crucial for the species’ survival, ignoring economic losses, local livelihoods, and new ecological problems related to trawl impacts, the Mexican government may have missed the point again.

With one foot of the vaquita firmly in the grave, now does not seem to be the time to make somewhat incomplete decisions regarding the survival of the vaquita, the health of the Upper Gulf of California’s ecosystem, and the social wellbeing of the families that live in this remote area of Mexico.”

Clearly, long term action is the only true solution to the problem. We hope that the government, conservationists, and fishermen can all work together to accomplish this.

However, if we don’t protect the few remaining vaquitas right now, there will be no “long term.”

Possibly the most promising aspect of the vaquita’s recent situation is Sea Shepherd’s involvement in enforcing the gillnet ban while working with the Mexican government. They are about to begin their third campaign (Operation Milagro) in the Upper Gulf, and they need our help in order to accomplish what is truly necessary to save the vaquita. Please contribute anything you can, and share this link with everyone you know. If you want to save the vaquita, there is no better place to put your money. Thank you.

http://www.seashepherd.org/milagro3/donate-now/vaquita-appeal.html

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CITES agrees to protect vaquita!

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

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

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

[…]

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

[…]

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

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

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

CITES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The gillnet ban is permanent!

The day has finally come.

Every type of gillnet is permanently banned in the vaquita’s range. There will never again be a legal gillnet in the upper Gulf of California.

Today, Presidents Obama and Peña Nieto had a meeting to discuss relations between the US and Mexico. In the press release following the meeting, it was announced that the gillnet ban would be made permanent to protect the vaquita:

“Both Presidents committed to intensify bilateral cooperation to protect the critically endangered vaquita marina porpoise, including through the following actions:

  • Mexico will make permanent a ban on the use of gillnets in all fisheries throughout the range of the vaquita in the upper Gulf of California;
  • Both countries will increase cooperation and enforcement efforts to immediately halt the illegal fishing for and illegal trade in totoaba swim bladders;
  • Both countries will redouble efforts, in collaboration with international experts, to develop alternative fishing gear to gillnets that does not result in the entanglement of vaquita and establish “vaquita-safe” fisheries; and
  • Both countries will establish and implement a long-term program to remove and permanently dispose of illegal and derelict fishing gear from vaquita habitat in the upper Gulf of California.”

You can read the entire press release here, which contains other announcements not related to the vaquita.

This is a major victory. In fact, it is probably the most important event in vaquita conservation history. We have been tirelessly working towards a permanent ban for years, and that hard work has paid off. The petition (which garnered over 96,000 signatures), International Save the Vaquita Day (which directly educated thousands of people all over the world less than two weeks ago), overwhelming news and press coverage (including a full-length 60 Minutes segment), and extensive social media awareness across every platform all played a huge part in showing the government that we truly do care about the vaquita’s existence.

However, it is not that simple. The vaquita is not saved just because of this ban. As with any law, it is only as effective as its enforcement.

Legal fishermen need to be fully compensated. Vaquita-safe nets need to be developed and implemented. Nighttime poachers needs to be stopped and punished. Totoaba swim bladder demand needs to be removed. Enforcement needs to be stronger than ever.

Here is a great article from the producers of Souls of the Vermilion Sea:

http://vaquitafilm.com/mexico-permanently-bans-gillnets-in-the-upper-gulf/

The situation in the upper Gulf fishing communities is extremely complex and therefore is very difficult to fully comprehend, let alone control. This ban will be useless if certain things are not taken care of immediately. Below is an excerpt from the article:

“Here are our questions for the Mexican Government:

To what degree will enforcement of the ban be improved? Will there be regular nighttime patrols conducted by the Navy?

Will the compensation program be extended? Will a significant effort be put forth to end the rampant corruption associated with the current compensation program?

Will fisherman in the region be provided with alternative fishing gear free of cost? Will there be a training program to teach fisherman how to use this new fishing gear?

Does this mean that the corvina fishery, which utilizes gillnets but was allowed under the current ban, will be stopped?

A permanent gillnet ban, while it seems on the surface like a giant step forward for vaquita conservation, actually has the potential to have a negative impact on the vaquita population if Mexico doesn’t truly commit to fixing the problems associated with the current ban.”

One of these problems is that because the ban on gillnet fishing has been effectively enforced, yet the compensation system is corrupt, fishermen are forced to find a new way to make money. Unfortunately, that way of making money just so happens to be nighttime totoaba poaching, which is the most dangerous fishing of all for the vaquita. This permanent ban could very well increase totoaba poaching to a more rampant level than ever before if the compensation and nighttime enforcement issues are not fixed quickly and thoroughly.

As I have always said (and probably always will say), our work to save the vaquita is not done. However, this new ban could be a turning point for the species. It shows that our hard work is paying off, and that the government really does care about the vaquita. That is a winning combination, and as long as we keep the pressure on the government to follow through with all the steps necessary to save this species, no matter how difficult, the outcome will be vaquitas swimming around safely and happily in the beautiful Gulf of California for generations to come.

Today is cause for momentary celebration before we get back to work!

Viva Vaquita!

Ban Poster

Poster made by my brother, featuring the beautiful stuffed vaquita sent to me by Jen Gabler

Petition and Thunderclap progress report

I can’t believe how successful our petition to make the gillnet ban permanent and our social media Thunderclap campaign have become in such a short amount of time!

We started these campaigns about a month ago, and could have never predicted the sheer number of people that would support them.

Here are the statistics:

Campaign Stats

In other news, PROFEPA and Sea Shepherd have been making tremendous progress in ban enforcement and net confiscation. Despite inclement weather, dozens of Totoaba nets have been retrieved from the water, and multiple poacher arrests have been made in recent weeks. It is wonderful to see the Mexican government working closely with NGOs to accomplish a mutually desired goal!

If you haven’t already, please sign our petition and Thunderclap! Thank you.

Petition

Thunderclap

I got interviewed!

Please take half an hour to listen to the newest podcast in the Eyes on Conservation series by Emmy-nominated filmmaker Matt Podolsky, one of the producers of the upcoming feature-length Vaquita documentary. In the podcast he interviews me about my perspective in the Vaquita effort and whether or not I believe this species, and the whole world for that matter, can be saved, among many other things. Please give it a listen and support this wonderful project!

Vaquita Outreach for a Younger Audience with Aidan Bodeo-Lomicky

New Vaquita photos!

On October 22, two Vaquitas were photographed at close range, marking the first good photographs of the 2015 Vaquita Expedition, and some of the best ever of the species, for that matter!

Check out some of the photos (by Todd Pusser):

Vaquita-marina-2

Vaquita-marina-3

Everyone is extremely excited about this sighting (and the approximately 25 other Vaquitas seen so far during this expedition!), as well as relieved to have new photos for future conservation efforts. President Enrique Peña Nieto is one of these excited individuals! He tweeted reports and photos of the sightings, and also stated that the efforts to save this species rage on, detailing the extensive recovery plan once again in a press release today! The U.S. government has also announced their partnership with Mexico and both of their commitments to saving the Vaquita and eliminating the illegal Totoaba trade in China.

Weather conditions during the expedition have been favorable for the most part (despite the devastating Hurricane Patricia that hit much further south in Mexico), allowing for many sightings, including many of female (cow) Vaquitas with their calves that were presumably born this spring. This is tremendous news, as it means that Vaquitas are still finding ways to reproduce, and therefore can recover if the population isn’t being threatened by gillnets. This expedition has only been going on for a month, and it has already resulted in over 25 sightings, great photographs, and best of all, a renewed hope among the conservation community that the Vaquita can not only be saved, but that all the pieces are already in place to make it actually happen.

Viva Vaquita!

Why are we doing this?

We spend a lot of time asking how to save the Vaquita.

However, asking why may be just as important.

To me, it has always been obvious. When any creature is in trouble, I want to help it; let alone when we are the reason behind its suffering. There are countless other amazing people who think this way, and because of them, the Vaquita is still swimming today.

But this morning I read a comment on a social media post about how exciting the recent Vaquita sightings are, and it went something like this:

“Thank God. Now, because of this, all the homeless have homes, the unemployed have jobs, and the beaten wives have boxing lessons. It’s so great that we’ve seen a bloody porpoise.”

I will not name this person, because, of course, everyone is entitle to their own opinions. I just found this comment very intriguing. I am sure this person is not alone in thinking this way about environmental issues, so I will delve into this a little.

I will start off by saying homelessness, poverty, and abuse are some of the most tragic realities of our world today. It is unfair that people have to spend the only life they have in such terrible situations. And because of how upsetting these things are to the general public, there are countless organizations dedicated to helping these sufferers and victims.

But just because there is something terrible happening, doesn’t mean that all other terrible situations should be forgotten about. There are enough people in this world to help both humans and nature.

And believe me, nature needs saving.

But why? What’s the big deal if an almost never-seen porpoise disappears? Here is an excerpt from my upcoming article (stay tuned for when it gets published) in the Journal of Marine Animals and Their Ecology:

“The extinction of the Vaquita would have major global impacts in a variety of ways. The effect on the local ecosystem would be seen very quickly because the Vaquita is an important species in the food web. If Mexico allows the Vaquita to go extinct, there would be numerous social and economical repercussions. In addition, every living organism is valuable; an entire species is even more so. We have the moral duty to save a species when we are the reason they are endangered. Finally, the outcome of the Vaquita’s situation will affect conservationists all over the world. If the Vaquita goes extinct, it will send the message that we don’t have the will to save endangered species, and it will happen again and again. However, if we do save the Vaquita, it will inspire conservationists to work harder to save other species in similar situations. The Vaquita needs to be saved for the Vaquita, its ecosystem, other endangered species, and for us.”

The philosophy that humans are the only species that matters has put our planet into a downward spiral for the past few hundred years. We haven’t really felt the effects of this spiral yet, but very soon, we are going to experience the repercussions of our collective neglect for this planet’s resources and for other species.

However, it is not too late to reverse some of the damages we have made. One of the best opportunities to do so in dramatic fashion is to save the Vaquita.

So when three Vaquitas are seen by decision-making Mexican dignitaries at the beginning of an extremely important survey, just when hope is fading, there is reason to celebrate. That is why we are glad to see a bloody porpoise.

Here is a photo gallery of the expedition so far, and it gives an idea of how important it really is:

Expedition gallery

SEMARNAT Press Conference

Most recently, the illegal Totoaba trade has been focused in Hong Kong, as discovered by Greenpeace. Please sign their petition to end this trade, which as you may know, is the primary cause for Vaquita bycatch:

Greenpeace Hong Kong Petition

And lastly, Mexican-American non-profit organization World’s Aquarium has created a campaign to fund their program to help monitor the illegal fishing in the Gulf. Non-governmental participation is a necessary effort in this fight. Please donate if you can; there are no better causes:

Marina Vaquita Observer Program

Let’s save this bloody porpoise! 😉