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

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!

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

 

Miracle

“What a country chooses to save is what a country chooses to say about itself.”
—Mollie Beattie

The last few weeks have been nothing short of a miracle.

First came the official start of the ban on all gillnets in the Vaquita’s entire range on April 10, which supposedly goes into effect today, Tuesday, April 28. This was proposed on Christmas, and was considered to possibly be the best Vaquita conservation news ever. However, there were some doubts as to how serious this ban was. Mexico could have easily just been saying what conservationists wanted to hear with no intentions of enacting the ban, let alone enforcing it. This fear was hardened by the continual postponement of the start of the ban. But finally, in April the ban was officially announced to begin on the 10th, with payments being made before the 28th (tomorrow), when enforcements will start.

But then the news started getting really good.

On April 16 Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto made the trip to San Felipe to inaugurate the new ban. He gave a passionate speech at the large celebration dedicated to the newfound hope for the Vaquita. This was an unprecedented event that went a long way in showing how committed the Mexican government is going to be to this ban.

Here is an article (click the link for a video) by Sandra Dibble about the ceremony and Mexico’s new plans:

‘With the small and rarely seen Vaquita porpoise verging on extinction, Mexico’s federal government is launching an unprecedented effort to save the species — through measures that include a dramatically expanded ban on gillnet fishing in the Upper Gulf of California over the next two years.

President Enrique Peña Nieto on Thursday traveled to this quiet Baja California fishing port to formally launch the new plan to save this small sea mammal endemic to the region. With fewer than 100 Vaquita now believed alive, scientists say the species is likely to disappear unless drastic measures are taken immediately.

With this latest plan to preserve the Vaquita, Mexico is “reaffirming the government’s commitment to the preservation of our environment,” Peña Nieto told a gathering of several hundred that included conservationists, the country’s naval and defense secretaries, as well as the governors of Sinaloa, Nayarit and Baja California.

The smallest and most endangered of the world’s 128 cetaceans, the Vaquita can grow to four or five feet long and weigh up to 120 pounds. Among its characteristics are dark rings around the eyes and dark patches on its lips. First identified in 1958, the Vaquita lives in the turbid waters of the Upper Gulf of California, where its population has declined sharply.

According to Armando Jaramillo, a marine biologist with Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change, the numbers have gone from 567 in an initial survey in 1997 to fewer than 100 today.

The announced extinction of the freshwater Baiji dolphin from China’s Yangtze River in 2006 has added urgency to conservationists’ calls.

The Vaquita “is a species emblematic of Mexico,” said Omar Vidal, director of the World Wildlife Fund in Mexico. “It’s like the Panda for China, not more, not less.”

Efforts to save the Vaquita have involved much cross-border collaboration, and present at Thursday’s event was Anthony Wayne, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, as well as representatives of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla.

The threat to the Vaquita “is a symptom of a broken system,” said Alejandro Robles, chairman of the Mexican environmental group Noroeste Sustentable. “The Upper Gulf has tremendously valuable resources. It has been the historical disorganization of the fishing sector that has created what we have today.”

Cooperation from the fishing community will be key to saving the Vaquita, Robles and other conservationists say. But in recent years, their efforts have met with stiff resistance from local fishermen, many of whom see their livelihood threatened by the gillnet ban and are skeptical of the Vaquita’s existence.

“There are fishermen who have lived their entire lives without seeing this animal,” said Carlos Avila, a 39-year-old fisherman and San Felipe native. “If we haven’t seen it, how are we going to preserve it?”

Peña Nieto’s announcement follows a scientific report last year by [CIRVA], the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, a group of experts appointed by the Mexican government. The report identified as the main threat to the Vaquita the drift gillnets favored by Avila and hundreds of other small fishermen in the region who make their living through their catch of shrimp and fish. The Vaquita become entangled in the nets and drown.

The report listed another growing threat in recent years: lucrative illegal fisheries in the Upper Gulf for another endangered species, the giant Totoaba fish. Tototaba are highly prized in China, where they are believed to have medicinal properties, and can command more than $10,000 per kilo, according to Mexican officials.

Thursday’s ceremony carried a message of increased federal enforcement in the region, which included a heavy presence of Mexican naval personnel and the presentation of Defender-class boats capable of traveling close to 70 miles per hour.

“Enforcement is absolutely critical,” said Barbara Taylor, a conservation biologist with the Southwest Fisheries science center. “It is going to be the critical thing on whether you save the species or not.”

The new measures are not the first by Mexico to preserve the Vaquita, but they go further than previous efforts. These include the prohibition of gill net fishing over an area of close to 1,150 square miles — about six times the size of a Vaquita refuge declared in 2005 where all fishing continues to be banned. The expanded zone covers the entire area where Vaquita have been sighted.

Another step involves the two-year compensation program — payments totaling close to $36 million annually — for fishermen who are forced to give up their gillnets and long hooks, as well as others in the local production chain.

Mexico’s federal government calculates that the compensation program for fishermen in San Felipe and another coastal community, El Golfo de Santa Clara, involves 806 small boats, or pangas, with 1,354 fishing permits (most have two permits). For the next two years, fishermen would receive about 7,000 pesos, or about $460 per month to stay away from their gillnets and long hooks.

“I have never seen the Mexican government put so much money into one species,” said Vidal of the World Wildlife Fund.

Sunshine Rodriguez, who heads the largest fishing federation in San Felipe, was once a staunch opponent of the gill net fishing ban. But he has endorsed the government’s latest plan.

“We don’t want to kill the oceans either,” he said. “We are certain that if there is another way of fishing and they come up with it, we’re going to use it.”

Still, Rodriguez and other fishermen have been resistant to alternative fishing methods being championed by the Mexican government and the conservation community, a light trawl known as a chango ecologico that does not threaten the Vaquita, saying that it uses more gasoline and brings in a smaller catch than the gillnets.

Robles of Noroeste Sustentable said the next two years will buy time for the region, but “to me the big question is what happens after two years; how we define sustainability in the Upper Gulf in the context of the Vaquita and the Totoaba, and also the needs of the community.”’

There have already been multiple Totoaba busts this month. First, two men were chased by police and dropped a backpack containing 90 swim bladders, and more recently, a man and woman were stopped with a large Totoaba on their boat. It is great to already see the enforcement in action, whether or not it is because of the new ban. The Mexican Navy has been given high-velocity Defender speedboats in order to effectively enforce the ban. The boats are capable of incredible speeds even while heavily armed, and it is apparent that they are in the right hands, given that there has already been a bust with one.

Recently, there have been dozens of articles about the latest developments, along with celebration among the conservation community. For the next few weeks, it is best for us citizens to give Mexico some time to see how serious they really are about everything, but while we are waiting, we can work on ending the illegal Totoaba trade. The root of all illegal trading is demand; if we can reduce the demand, there will be no reason to fish for Totoaba. You can spread the word about the situation, talk to your local Chinese food restaurant, and if you or someone you know visits/lives in China, talk to everyone you can and ask them to not buy Totoaba swim bladders or fish maw soup.

Sea Shepherd, an organization made famous by the hit show Whale Wars, has a new mission: Operation Milagro, which means miracle. They have been in the Sea of Cortez for a month, and are dedicated to doing all they can to save the Vaquita.

“We have called this campaign ‘Operation Milagro’ because, taking into account the staggeringly small number of Vaquitas left, sadly it would be nothing short of a miracle to see one swimming in the sea today,” said Captain Oona Layolle.

Well believe it or not, on the very next day, for the first time since 2013, Operation Milagro did just that.

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
—Margaret Mead

 

Expedition summary

The 2013 Vaquita Expedition has drawn to a close. Though it was not exactly what everyone had been hoping for, there were some upsides to the expedition. Here is the email I received from Tom Jefferson on Friday:

“Greetings,
We have just returned from our 24-day Vaquita photographic expedition in San Felipe. The project had some bad luck and we were not able to get high-quality images of Vaquitas, as we had hoped. Here are some lowlights and highlights of the project:

Lowlights
1) The only Vaquita images obtained were very distant and blurry.
2) Of 22 potential days to work, nearly half (10) were too windy to even consider going out to sea. We had very little calm conditions (Beaufort 0-1), which is important for finding Vaquitas.
3) In one of our sightings that presented good photo prospects, three large trawlers moved through and scared the Vaquitas away just as we were attempting to get photos.
4) We did not observe any fishing with the new mini-trawl nets.

Highlights
1) We conducted 558 miles of searches for Vaquitas while traveling in two boats.
2) We conducted over 20 hours of intensive ‘stop and drift’ searches while sitting in the water with engines off.
3) We had 11 cetacean sightings (including several groups of long-beaked common dolphins, and large whales).
4) We observed three groups of Vaquitas at relatively close range.
5) We did not observe any illegal fishing with gillnets in the Vaquita Refuge.
6) We conducted a talk on the Vaquita for about 45 people at El Dorado Ranch.
7) We distributed educational brochures and coloring books to several businesses in town.

We are disappointed that we did not obtain any high-quality Vaquita images this year, but are not giving up. We are re-evaluating our approach for future expeditions.

Best wishes,
Tom
¡VIVA Vaquita!”

I was, of course, frustrated that the weather did not cooperate, and that once again the bad timing of large vessels scared away good photo subjects. It would have been incredible to get new Vaquita images to use for publicity, or at least witness the use of Vaquita-friendly fishing gear. Though it wasn’t an ideal mission, there are a few very important positives that we should focus on. First of all is the fact that they were able to go on the expedition in the first place. This means that they are getting the funding they need in order to successfully complete the endeavors they feel necessary to save the Vaquita. Going by the goals that I set in previous posts, the mission was technically a success in that they saw multiple groups of Vaquitas (more than in 2010!) as well as no illegal fishing. Firstly, this means that they are still alive and probably reproducing because when Vaquita are in groups it usually includes a mother and her calf, which would have been born in the spring, meaning Vaquitas were mating within the last few years and hopefully the summer of this year so calves are born next spring. Secondly, if there are no gillnets in the Vaquita Refuge, then the mortality rate of the species will be about zero, meaning any births will increase the population. I hope this expedition helped and will continue to help the spreading of awareness for the Vaquita, from the talk, to the brochures, to the coloring books. It would also be great if everyone reading this post shared their knowledge of the Vaquita on all their social networks and to all their friends. There is still hope for the Vaquita if we work together!

Expedition progress

Dr. Tom Jefferson just sent me some good news! Though the weather has not been ideal so far during the expedition, there has been a Vaquita sighting! Here is what he wrote:

“We have not had very good weather so far, but we did have one very calm day with a single Vaquita sighting very close to the boats. Three animals, but the photos did not turn out well.”

I was very excited to read this, and filled with hope that if the weather is calm for the next two weeks, they will get some really good Vaquita photos! Stay tuned.