Northern Gulf of California World Heritage Site Listed as ‘In Danger’

When the Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California were listed by UNESCO as an area of Outstanding Universal Value in 2005, it was noted that the site contained a third of the world’s marine cetacean species, most importantly, the endemic vaquita. In early July of this year, only 14 years after inscription, it was added to the list of World Heritage Sites in Danger. The reason for this change of status is simple: the well-documented precipitous decline and imminent extinction of the vaquita. It is feared that there were no more than around 10 vaquitas left (range of 6-19) in the late summer of 2018. Since then and through the first half of 2019, illegal fisheries have ramped up. Not only has illegal totoaba fishing continued and become more violent toward efforts to remove nets (see earlier vaquita updates this year), but also since the compensation program for fishermen was terminated without a readily available alternative fishing method , fishermen have returned to gillnetting for sharks, Spanish mackerel (or sierra, Scomberomorus sierra and S. concolor), chano (Micropogonias megalops), and curvina (Cynoscion othonopterus).


The World Heritage Committee stresses that the listing of a site as ‘in danger’ doesn’t represent a sanction, per se. Rather, it is meant as a way to stimulate and enhance action to protect threatened sites and endangered species. Countries, in this case Mexico, are encouraged to use the designation as an opportunity to attract funding and expertise and hence strengthen protection measures. We can only hope that Mexico acts decisively and urgently to address two of the key failures in its vaquita conservation strategy: (i) effective enforcement of laws and (ii) provision of alternative livelihoods for fishermen, including access to alternative fishing gear.

April 2019 Vaquita Update

Totoaba season is winding down but gillnetting for other fish is rampant

Following the 28 March incident (Sea Shepherd report can be read here), net removal operations were temporarily suspended. The Narval did not return in April and the Farley Mowat and Sharpie worked only during the last half of April. Sea Shepherd added a third larger ship named White Holly. Crews are confident that there are no longer any active totoaba nets in the ‘zero tolerance’ area due to extensive patrolling of this and surrounding areas (see map below).

December January February March April TOTAL
Farley Mowat 41 13 6 35 3 98
Sharpie 8 26 1 35
Narval 9 10 6 25
TOTAL 41 22 24 67 4 158

However, following an announcement by the Mexican government that the program to compensate fishermen for not fishing would cease, many returned to gillnet fishing without permits. Fishermen working on the net removal vessels reported that some of those who were back on the water fishing were staying away from the zero tolerance area where the net removal effort is concentrated. However, others are actively gillnetting within the area and refuse to move when requested (see radar image and map of pangas spotted by radar).  Because these fishermen stay with their nets, the nets are not removed.  The relatively extensive ongoing illegal gillnetting represents a clear danger to the few remaining vaquitas and it impedes the deployment of acoustic monitoring devices.  Without acoustic data to guide researchers to the locations of vaquitas, planned photo-identification work has been delayed until the fishing has essentially stopped.

The map (Source: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Internal Reports, 2019) shows the locations of active nets removed through April 2019 by the Farley Mowat, Sharpie and Narval (yellow dots for April and black dots for earlier this totoaba season).  The black line shows the area of the enhanced enforcement program which includes both the Vaquita Refuge and the exclusion zone that was recommended by CIRVA in 2017.  The slanted rectangle indicates the zero tolerance area that was recommended by CIRVA this year for nets to be removed within hours because this is a particularly high-use area for vaquitas.

An image of the radar screen on 3 May 2019 at 5:38 pm (Pacific Daylight Time).  The position of the ship is in the center of the image as a red circle. The zero tolerance area known to have the highest density of vaquitas is the slanted rectangle outlined by a dashed line. The bright dots (at least 60 visible, with 15 inside the zero tolerance area) are panga positions. Typically each panga sets at least one gillnet over 1 km long, so at a minimum there was likely at least 15 km of gillnet hanging inside the area inhabited by the last few vaquitas.

Map of positions of pangas shown on radar over a 2-week period in April 2019. Because the same panga may be recorded multiple times, the map should be interpreted as showing the general pattern of use and not the number of pangas present in the area at a given time.  The primary conclusion is that a great deal of gillnetting has continued to occur within the area of highest density of vaquitas, with no clear evidence that fishermen are avoiding that area.

March 2019 Vaquita Update

More violence mars vaquita protection efforts

This update summarizes net removals from March and news about continuing violence leading to another suspension of net removal efforts. On 13 March a dead vaquita was found in a net by the Sea Shepherd net removal team (more details here). The headless carcass of the female was identified as a vaquita by the Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (University of Baja California-UABC) in Ensenada using genetics and by Museo de la Ballena y Ciencias del Mar (Whale and Marine Science Museum) using skeletal examination. A necropsy was performed by a veterinarian designated by Procuraduría Federal de Protección al Ambiente (Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection)-PROFEPA . With at most 22 vaquitas estimated to remain as of September 2018, the loss of this individual is yet another serious setback.

Following an announcement by the Mexican government that the compensation program to not fish would cease, the cooperatives belonging to the Fishermen Federation decided to return to active gillnet fishing, as a protest and without permits. The spawning season for the corvina (a smaller relative of the totoaba) is March to early May, and and the corvina fishery has been a major source of fishing income in the Upper Gulf. Corvina can be caught using gillnets to actively corral the fish, a practice that is believed to pose less risk to vaquitas than drift gillnetting because the noise from boat engines presumably frightens the vaquitas away from the vicinity of the fishing activity. Crew on the net removal vessels noted that most of the fishermen were staying away from the ‘zero tolerance’ area where the net removal efforts have been concentrated. Also, it is important to mention that fishery organizations indicated that even though their members would be out at sea and fishing, they would avoid the vaquita protection polygons.

On 28 March poachers cut loose a net that the Sea Shepherd vessel Sharpie was in the process of trying to remove. This incident (the Sea Shepherd report of which can be read here) resulted in the accidental shooting by the Navy of one of the poachers (who survived), the burning of the PROFEPA yard containing confiscated fishery items, and the burning of several boats. Later a storage yard outside San Felipe, Rancho el Dorado, that contained many of the nets removed this year was robbed. To date, there has been no punishment for any of these illegal activities.

Farley Mowat

The number of net removals in March increased as expected with the advancing of the totoaba spawning season. The removal of more nets in March outside the zero tolerance area was partly due to finding few nets inside that area of higher vaquita density (good news!). Removal effort this year is being concentrated on the area where vaquitas were last seen and heard. Like last year, 3 ships have been involved in net-removal efforts in 2019: the Narval (Museo de Ballena) and the Sharpie and Farley Mowat (Sea Shepherd). A summary of efforts during 2018 was given in the December 2018 vaquita update.

The map (Source: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Internal Reports, 2019) shows the locations of active nets removed through March 2019 by the Farley Mowat, Sharpie and Narval (yellow dots for March and black dots for earlier this totoaba season). The black line shows the area of enhanced protection including both the Vaquita Refuge and the enhanced enforcement area recommended by CIRVA last year (2018). The slanted rectangle indicates the zero tolerance area that was recommended by CIRVA-11 (this year, 2019) for nets to be removed within hours of being deployed because this is an area where vaquitas were known to be concentrated in recent months according to acoustic monitoring and visual observations.

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