Vaquita decline even faster than expected

The sixth meeting of the Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (CIRVA) was held in San Diego, California, USA, on 22 May 2015, immediately before the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Committee.

CIRVA-6 commended the Government of Mexico for implementing an emergency two-year gillnet ban throughout the vaquita’s range and also acknowledged the major commitments by the President of Mexico to make enforcement more effective through an interagency team led by the Navy.

However, after reviewing new results of the acoustic monitoring program, including the report of an expert panel that had reconvened in April 2015 to consider the acoustic data from 2011-2014, CIRVA-6 concluded that the vaquita population had declined at an even faster rate than estimated previously. In fact, the estimated rate of decline in vaquita abundance from 2013 to 2014 was 42%!

The CIRVA-6 report (here) recommends that the Government of Mexico proceed immediately with the necessary regulatory measures to make the gillnet ban in the northern Gulf of California permanent. It also recommends that the Government maintain its strong commitment to interagency enforcement and include night-time surveillance as part of that effort.


Community focused research on the Critically Endangered Yangtze Finless Porpoise

A large-scale interview survey of fishing communities in geographic “hotspots” of the Critically Endangered Yangtze finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis) was conducted in 2011-2012 along the main Yangtze channel and around Dongting and Poyang Lakes by the Zoological Society of London and the Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences. This project which was led by CSG members Samuel Turvey and Wang Ding investigated regional levels, impacts, and socio-economic drivers of potentially harmful fishing activities, together with local attitudes and awareness about regional legislation, in order to provide a more robust baseline to identify appropriate mitigation strategies for porpoise conservation in the Yangtze drainage. Fishing communities within porpoise hotspots have relatively little awareness of key fisheries or porpoise conservation legislation, and changes to legislation are also recommended. Fishers across porpoise hotspots have cumulative annual earnings from fishing of over CNY 150 million and little experience of alternative livelihoods, considerations which must be taken into account when making decisions concerning potential regulation of regional fishing activities for porpoise conservation.The report from this work can be viewed here.


President of Mexico launches plan to save the vaquita

President Enrique Peña Nieto announces the latest vaquita conservation plan in front of a Defender high-speed boat dedicated to enforcement in the northern Gulf of California.

On 15 April 2015 President Enrique Peña Nieto made the first visit by any Mexican President to San Felipe (one of the two main fishing centers bordering the new gillnet exclusion zone) to announce the Program on the Comprehensive Care of the Upper Gulf, which will require cooperative action by the State Governments of Sonora and Baja California, several federal Ministries, among them Interior, Defense and the Navy, Agriculture and Livestock, and the Attorney General’s Office. This public declaration of a program to save both the vaquita and the totoaba, emphasizing Mexico’s commitment to maintain the 10% of global biodiversity that occurs within its borders, can be an important step towards changing conservation practices. The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources has lead responsibility for coordinating  program implementation.

Backdrop to the ceremonial podium “For the protection of our marine ecosystems and natural resources” depicting  a sea turtle, totoaba and a vaquita.

The program’s main elements are:
  • Expansion of the area of the Vaquita Refuge
  • Suspension of fishing activities that represent risk to vaquitas for two years
  • Financial compensation to licensees, fishermen and related workers in the shrimp, finfish and shark fisheries
  • A community-based surveillance and enforcement scheme
  • Strengthening Mexico’s capacity to combat illegal fishing for totoaba.

As reported on this website in mid-January 2015, the Government of Mexico had agreed to implement a nearly complete ban on the use of gillnets (and longlines, apparently related to totoaba conservation) in the portion of the northern Gulf of California covering all confirmed sightings of vaquitas since the 1980s (1.3 million hectares). Although the ban addresses one key recommendation by the international vaquita recovery team (Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita, or CIRVA), it remains to be seen to what extent implementation of final measures, as published in Mexico´s Federal Register on 10 April 2015, will address CIRVA’s other recommendations, including the concerns about the draft agreement expressed by CIRVA last December.

Within days following the President’s announcement and launch of the new program, reports were received of 85 pangas (gillnet fishing boats) entering the water at San Felipe and of more than 20 pangas fishing within the Vaquita Refuge. Arrests of two offenders were made using the new Defender high-speed enforcement boats operated by the Navy. No illegal fishing within the Vaquita Refuge has been observed since the arrests although there are reports of nighttime fishing that will require special enforcement efforts.

Photo Left – Pangas with illegal fishing gear (shown by the presence of multiple flags indicating multiple nets).  Photo Right: One of the five new Defender high-speed enforcement boats turned over to the Navy during the Presidential ceremony. Two of these will operate in the northern Gulf of California. Navy control of enforcement is a new and important step towards strengthening conservation in this area. 

A positive development is that vaquitas were seen and videotaped in April by a Sea Shepherd vessel, see http://www.seashepherd.org/news-and-media/2015/04/22/miracle-on-the-water-1684.

The vaquita sighting during Sea Shepherd’s Operation Milagro marks the first time since 2013 the shy porpoise has been spotted in the Sea of Cortez.  Photo: Sea Shepherd / Carolina A Castro. Taken under Aviso de filmación CNANP-00-010

A joint Mexico-US vaquita survey is being planned for later this year. It will include a strong acoustic component to cover the shallow portions of vaquita distribution.


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