Letter sent from IUCN SSC regarding strengthening protection measures for the vaquita

On 14th August 2021, the Chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, Jon Paul Rodríguez sent a letter to members of the Government of Mexico, the Government of the US, Government of Canada, the Trilateral Commission for Environmental Cooperation, Government of China, European Union, CITES Secretariat, World Heritage Center and the Global Environment Facility requesting immediate actions from governments, international bodies and potential donors to help to save the vaquita.

 

The letter explained that the most urgent is the need for technical, financial and legal support to the Mexican government and civil society to ensure effective implementation of conservation actions: scientific vaquita monitoring, equipping and training local fisherfolk to use legally mandated gear, continual removal of illegal gillnets from vaquita habitat, and training and increased resources for law enforcement.  It also urged the Grupo Intergubernamental sobre la Sustentabilidad en el Alto Golfo de California to modify the so‐called “Trigger Factors” agreement published 9 July 2021, which is a complex fisheries management program that will be almost impossible to implement and enforce and which undermines the legal commitment to Zero Tolerance in the very small (280 km2) area where the last few vaquitas remain.

 

The letter can be read in full here.

New estimate of vaquita status improved through elicitation of expert knowledge

A vaquita being tracked within the Zero Tolerance Area and a panga with a buoy for a set gillnet in the background on 17th October 2019. Credit. Todd Pusser. 

 

The results of a virtual workshop to use expert elicitation to better estimate the number of vaquitas seen in the Zero Tolerance Area are now available here (Final Vaquita Expert Elicitation Report).  Since 2019 acoustic monitoring to assess trends in abundance of the vaquita has not been possible because so much equipment has been stolen.  With so few vaquitas remaining, a two-ship effort in October 2019 was launched in the hope of obtaining sufficient photographically identified vaquita individuals to use mark-recapture methods to estimate vaquita numbers.  Although there were 7 encounters with vaquita groups, surviving vaquitas are so wary and hard to approach that insufficient numbers of high-quality photographs were obtained for the analysis. Therefore, a new approach was adopted, utilizing expert elicitation to obtain the best available estimate of the number of vaquitas seen.  A workshop was held in August, 2020 and included all observers who participated in the vessel-based field survey in October 2019, and was led by researchers at St. Andrews University.  The results of the expert elicitation exercise found the mean estimate for the number of vaquita calves seen was 3 with a 63% belief that there were at least 3 calves.  The mean estimate for the number of unique vaquitas seen in all 7 sightings was 9.4 with a 40% belief that there were at least 10.  Also of note was that tracking vaquitas was difficult because the ships and pangas had to maneuver around illegal fishers with gillnets set.

A female vaquita and her calf next to a panga with a gillnet being set within the Zero Tolerance Area on 17th October 2019. Credit: Museo de la Ballena

Urgent Letter sent from IUCN Species Survival Commission to Mexican Authorities to correct false information about vaquita decline

 

Last week, the IUCN Species Survival Commission sent a letter (see version in Spanish, and English) to the Secretaries of the Mexican Navy, Environment, and Agriculture and Fisheries authorities, to counter false allegations that vaquitas are going extinct because of a change in salinity within the vaquita habitat.  According to the allegations, shark predation and osmoregulation failure are the causes of the vaquita’s precipitous population decline. No scientific evidence (in the form of peer-reviewed scientific articles or data) has been provided to support these allegations and the SSC acted quickly to dispel the rumours, and make clear that the only immediate threat to the species is accidental mortality in gillnets.  The letter’s main objective was to emphasize this, and to do so quickly, as March is the peak of the totoaba poaching season when entanglement risk to vaquitas is greatest. It requests that Mexican authorities take immediate action to reinstate net-removal activities, which are currently on hold, as soon as possible. Scientific evidence to refute the allegations is given in the letter.

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