New Presidential Commission to Save Vaquita Takes First Steps

The first meetings of the Comisión Asesora de la Presidencia de México para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (Advisory Commission of the Presidency of Mexico for the Recovery of the Vaquita) were held in Mexico City in February and March of this year, and significant actions are under way.  Ing. Juan José Guerra Abud, Secretario de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, formed the 17-member Commission to expedite actions to save Mexico’s porpoise.  The Secretary brought together the heads of government departments, the chairs of Congressional natural resource committees, representatives of the states of Sonora and Baja California, representatives of fishery unions, the Mexican Navy, non-governmental organizations and private foundations, and scientists to step up action on meeting what he describes as Mexico’s moral obligation to save the species.

At its first meeting, the Commission identified three actions for immediate implementation: (1) publication of the NOM (official standard) that will make the use of small-type trawls instead of gillnets mandatory in the shrimp fishery; (2) much more effective enforcement of existing regulations; and (3) commitment of financial resources to compensate fishermen for lost income as a result of vaquita protection measures.  The NOM was published for public comment on schedule in February, and this sets the stage for large-scale gear changes before next fall’s shrimp season.  A small working group was established to develop the economic plan immediately.

Formation of the Commission was timely given recent indications that protection efforts to date have been insufficient to stop the vaquita population’s decline – there are now estimated to be fewer than 200 individuals. The International Recovery Team (CIRVA) noted at its last meeting (February 2012) that although Mexico has made real progress towards saving the species, the Vaquita Refuge has only slowed, and not stopped or reversed, the decline. Not only is the Refuge too small, but enforcement of a partial ban of gillnets has proven infeasible. The good news, however, is that a breakthrough has been made in the development of alternative fishing gear that should not kill vaquitas but will allow shrimp fishing to continue.

Small trawls that can be pulled from the artisanal fishing boats (pangas) have been tested by Mexico’s fisheries agency. These trawls are equipped with turtle and fish excluder devices and use a ‘tickler’ chain to reduce bottom-fish bycatch. The trawls are effective for catching shrimp and are being tested for catching commercial finfish. Conversion will require training and gear replacement and it is anticipated that fishermen will need compensation to maintain their income.  At the second meeting a proposal to further test the new gear involving more fishermen in August 2013 was adopted.

The Minister also decided on a new vaquita abundance estimation survey to be conducted as soon as possible.  This survey will repeat the design of the survey in 2008 and could be conducted as early as fall 2013.

Progress will be closely monitored by numerous groups, some of which (e.g. IUCN, Society for Conservation Biology, and Society for Marine Mammalogy) have written letters to commend Mexico for actions taken and to plead for further quick and critical actions. Representatives of the CSG and SMM who are on the new Commission are optimistic that Mexico’s new Administration is serious and prepared to commit the necessary resources for timely and appropriate efforts to prevent the vaquita’s extinction. Stay tuned.

Indonesia’s new stranding network

Indonesia has one of the longest coastlines in the world – over 80,000km. About 35 species of cetaceans, plus the dugong, are known to occur in the region, and a myriad of human activities take place in the marine environment.  Therefore the country is likely to experience a large number of stranding events. Records of strandings in Indonesia are being compiled opportunistically and presented on a new website: www.whalestrandingindonesia.com.  This shows 102 stranding events from 2000-2012, about half of which were of unidentified species. Considering Indonesia’s long coastline and the lack of systematic reporting, this number is likely a great underestimate of the actual number of strandings.

In November 2012, following a high-profile stranding of 48 short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) in East Nusa Tenggara Province, the Indonesian Ministry of Marine and Fisheries Affairs officially formed a National Committee to establish a National Stranding Network and develop a stranding protocol.  The National Committee is expected to publish the final stranding protocol in April 2013 and this protocol will be distributed to all provinces in the country. To better coordinate in-country stranding response efforts, the Committee has formed seven working nodes in Indonesia: Sumatra, Bali, Kalimantan, Sulawesi, East Nusa Tenggara, and Papua. Local network mechanisms (including call center, coordination and funding) will be discussed in the next few months with the following schedule: April (Bali), May (East Nusa Tenggara), June (East Kalimantan) and October (West Java).  First-responder training will also be given and nation-wide veterinary training will be conducted before the end of the year.

For further information, contact Putu Liza Mustika (‘Icha’) at putu.liza@my.jcu.edu.au.

Assessment of the sustainability of Solomon Islands live dolphin captures

There is a long history in the Solomon Islands of drive-hunts targeting dolphins. Recently, the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops aduncus), a species not previously targeted by drive-hunters, has been subject to live-captures and export for display in dolphinariums and other facilities. The current quota of dolphins that can be exported each year is 50. Since 2003, 108 T. aduncus have been exported, however the actual number of dolphins removed from local populations is probably much larger given unaccounted-for deaths during capture and local captivity.

In 2009, a collaborative project was initiated by the Solomon Islands Government and the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium to assess the impacts of live-captures on the dolphin populations and improve management and conservation. The final report of that investigation, which summarises T. aduncus population status and assesses the sustainability of live-captures, was completed in March 2013. It is available here. The results of the study are summarised briefly below:

From November 2009 to July 2011, three sets of boat surveys were conducted at four study sites in the Solomon Islands, including the areas where all captures have occurred so far, i.e. north-western Guadalcanal and, to a lesser extent, western Malaita. The other two sites were the Florida Islands and southern Santa Isabel. Nine species of marine mammals were observed, including 45 groups of T. aduncus. The T. aduncus were always observed near shore (<2 nautical miles from the coast) and in shallow waters (<100 m deep). Of 225 photo-identified individuals, 46 were re-sighted in different years. All but one of the resightings were within one of the study sites, suggesting a high degree of site fidelity.

Abundance estimates from closed-population capture-recapture models suggest that each study site has a population in the low hundreds (about 100 to 300 individuals) but estimates were not precise for Malaita. Calculations of Potential Biological Removal (PBR) levels suggest that removals should be limited to one dolphin every five years for north-western Guadalcanal and the Florida Islands and one dolphin every two and a half years for southern Santa Isabel and western Malaita. On the basis of the PBR, the authorized export quota of 50 dolphins/year appears to be unsustainable for local populations. A new management procedure taking these findings into account is necessary. If any, future quotas should be species-specific and based on captures, rather than number of exports, which does not account for mortality during the capture process or local holding prior to shipment. The report suggests a complete capture ban in Guadalcanal until future monitoring shows an increase in abundance.

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