Morph

Morph

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Beyond the surface

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, where does this leave us?

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

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

Perspective

This weekend I did a lot of catch-and-release fishing with my cousins in Barnegat, New Jersey, where I was able to witness firsthand many fish and almost as many ways to catch them. We caught at least 35 fish from 5 different species.

The experience was interesting for me in a few ways. First, I learned a lot about fishing. Since this exact activity is what is wiping out the Vaquita, an animal that I am dedicating a large portion of my life to, I want to learn everything I can about the other side of the duel. When I am getting ready for a tennis tournament, I don’t just work on my own game, I also study my opponent and how he plays. We need to do the same exact thing for the Vaquita vs. Fishermen matchup. That means listening to the fishermen. They are not our enemy. They are just humans doing their job. Unfortunately, their job is wiping out an entire species. We need to fully understand both sides of the dilemma in order to solve it. I have been researching a lot about gillnets, pangas, and everything about fishing in the Gulf. The simple answer is: they will not be able to stop fishing, so we need to get them to use Vaquita-safe gear. Fortunately, as you probably know, the Mexican government has announced that all shrimp gillnets will be switched to Vaquita-safe trawls within the next 3 years. Albeit a huge step, it is only the first of many needed to save the Vaquita.

The second way the experience was interesting was the sheer number of animals that we pulled out of a small bay during a few hours of fishing. At least 35. Or a flock of starlings I saw on the ground today of at least 200 birds. I then realized how vulnerable the number 200 is when you are talking about population. That flock of birds could fly into a reflective glass building and be gone. Just like that. There are at most 200 Vaquitas left on the planet. Gillnets are the Vaquita’s reflective glass building. Theoretically, the Vaquita could go extinct tonight. But hopefully they are still here tomorrow, so we can get to work on getting every last gillnet out of the Gulf of California and hanging them up forever.

The third way it was interesting is that I was able to put myself in the fishermen’s shoes. I pretended that I was a fisherman and that I needed to catch fish in order to feed my family. It really changed my perspective on the situation. I realized how fishing is anything but a hobby for the Gulf fishermen. It is absolutely a job, and a competitive one at that. As leading Vaquita expert Barbara Taylor once said of fishing in the Gulf, “If you don’t catch any shrimp, your neighbor will.” When I put myself in the fishermen’s situation, there was a new urgency to catch each fish, and I can only imagine what the pressure is like in real life. If I were them, I would use the best gear possible and nothing else. Fortunately, the Vaquita-safe trawls are as effective as gillnets, but more expensive. We need more awareness, therefore money, towards the Vaquita and the switch-out program. So please, spread the word and raise money in any way you can possibly think of. I would love to hear your ideas and questions in the comments section. Thank you!

Last chance for this month’s donation

If you buy my book before the midnight of tomorrow, August 1, 25% of the proceeds will go to ¡Viva Vaquita! in the very first monthly donation. Every month, I will be donating 25% of my book’s proceeds to ¡Viva Vaquita!, with the rest going to the ACSLA’s switch-out program and many other Vaquita causes. If you would like to donate to the Vaquita while receiving the first ever book on it, please visit https://www.createspace.com/4268018 and buy as many books as you would like. Thank you so much from the Vaquita! I will give the details of the donation after the deadline.

The big 3

According to leading Vaquita researcher Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, there are 3 initiatives that we members of the general public can participate in to legitimately make a difference in the Vaquita’s situation. They are:

1. Raise awareness
2. Convince restaurants to only buy their shrimp from safe sources
3. Raise money towards the switch-out program

The first one has so many different levels to it. This blog is an example of the online branch of public awareness, as is a Vaquita-related Facebook post. Another branch is face-to-face awareness, such as the tables manned by the Muskwa Club and ¡Viva Vaquita!, or a Vaquita speech at an event. Some other things that can raise awareness are books (mine is the only one so far), pamphlets, or public service announcements (especially on the radio). The online branch is the easiest and most effective, because you can instantly send information around the world with the click of a button. The hard part is getting the information to a large enough audience with the information being worthwhile enough that they will, in turn, pass it around to other people. Luckily, the Vaquita is a very worthwhile cause. So all you need to do is start a chain of posts about it, and those very posts could end up being read by every person on earth.

The second one is only for the dedicated Vaquita conservationist. It would require quite a bit of research and getting out of the house. For example, the next time you go to Red Lobster, ask your waiter where the shrimp comes from. If they don’t know, ask to speak with the manager. I honestly have never seen shrimp that was not farm-raised somewhere in Asia, but I always make sure. Always. Even though there is much debate as to how/where shrimp should be caught for maximum sustainability, anything other than gillnet-caught in the Gulf of California is fine from a Vaquita standpoint. It is most important to check restaurants and grocery stores for Vaquita-unsafe shrimp if you live near Mexico, in places like California and Arizona. There are many sites, including http://vaquita.tv/, that go into detail about sustainable seafood. After all, gillnet fishing is the only thing wiping out the Vaquita. Why not make sure that you aren’t supporting it?

The third and final initiative is raising money towards the switch-out program. The Muskwa Club and the American Cetacean Society Los Angeles Chapter have teamed up to create the only charity that sends money directly to the switch-out program, and nothing else. This is vital because the switch-out program is believed to be the best chance for the Vaquita, because it is unreasonable to think that the fishermen will just give up fishing for some unknown business that could get them nowhere financially. The switch-out is a best of both worlds situation, because the fishermen still can fish with the new nets that have proven to be as or more effective than gillnets, while the Vaquitas are put in little to no danger whatsoever. To donate to the new charity, please write a check to P.O. Box 1208, San Pedro, CA 90733-1208 and write Vaquita on the memo line. Yes, I know it is a cliché, but every dollar really does count. But the Muskwa Club has bigger plans. We are attempting to contact eco-conscious celebrities and billionaires as potential funding sources. Leonardo DiCaprio and Pierce Brosnan are both part of huge efforts to save tigers and whales, so why not the Vaquita? Warren Buffett just donated $2.6 billion to charity. Yes, you read that correctly. The entire switch-out program can be funded with, at most, $180 million. I am not necessarily saying we are going to get $180 million from Mr. Buffett, but it is exciting to think about what one human can do. He can literally save a species, in theory.

Maybe I will start playing the lottery.

Official Norm

About a week ago, the Mexican government took an enormous step in saving the Vaquita. The government has created something called the “Official Norm,” a regulation that plans on completely switching out all gillnets with Vaquita-safe trawls in the next 3 years. They hope to switch out 30% this year, 30% next year, and 40% in the third year. This giant step was taken due to the over 38,000 signatures on WWF’s petition to Enrique Peña Nieto, the Mexican president. Read WWF’s article about this landmark announcement: http://wwf.panda.org/wwf_news/?208988%2FMexico-approves-measure-to-save-worlds-rarest-marine-mammal.

To donate to the switch-out through the American Cetacean Society Los Angeles Chapter’s new switch-out charity, send a check by mail to: P.O. Box 1208, San Pedro, CA 90733-1208. It is very important that you write “Vaquita” on the memo line for it to go to the switch-out.

If you would like to help make the Official Norm successful, please copy, paste, and send this resolution created by the Muskwa Club to any member of the U.S. government that you can:

________________________________________________________________

A Resolution to Support Mexico in its Effort to Prevent the Extinction of the Vaquita.

WHEREAS, The Vaquita is the most endangered marine mammal, with less than 200 individuals remaining, and is heavily threatened by incidental gillnet bycatch; and

WHEREAS, The Vaquita is likely to become extinct within the next several years; and

WHEREAS, It would not be acceptable for extinction of an intelligent and unique species to occur; and

WHEREAS, The government of Mexico has adopted an Official Norm to replace all shrimp gillnets within the Vaquita’s range with sustainable fishing gear within the next three years;

RESOLVED, That the Congress here assembled commends the government of Mexico for its step to save the Vaquita and strongly encourages the government thereof to successfully complete the program within the allotted time; and, be it

FURTHER RESOLVED, That the government of the United States highly recommends that the government of Mexico develop sustainable finfishing gear as a further guarantor of the Vaquita’s survival.

Introduced for Congressional Debate by (will be filled in shortly).

Switch-out charity

Thanks to William Whittenbury, the Los Angeles Chapter of the American Cetacean Society has turned our ideas for the Vaquita Conservation Society into reality. Though it is still in the beginnings, they have created a charity that sends its donations to the switch-out program, (where the government gives fishermen alternative, Vaquita-safe fishing gear) and they are the first group to do so. Right now, the only way to donate is to send a check by mail to: P.O. Box 1208, San Pedro, CA 90733-1208. It is very important that you write “Vaquita” on the memo line for it to go to the switch-out. I believe that the best chance for the Vaquita is the switch-out, because the new trawls provide the ideal results for both man and porpoise. Eventually, the charity will be much more public and have a bigger impact, but, as I said, the charity is still taking its baby steps. Please share this post with your friends (click on the title of the post and then scroll down until you see the social media buttons) and donate.

Also, a new idea is forming within the Muskwa Headquarters that could be our biggest project yet. Stay tuned.

 

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