Mexican government approves selective fishing gear to reduce Vaquita bycatch

On the 6th June 2013 the Government of Mexico took an important step to save the vaquita.  The Mexican ‘Official Norm’ establishes shrimp fishing standards in Mexico and defines which gear is permitted in different zones of the country. The Government has adopted important modifications to the Norm which will require the progressive substitution of shrimp drift gillnets, one of the main fishing gears in which vaquitas die incidentally, with more selective gear that does not kill porpoises. The Mexican government ordered a three-year, gradual substitution of drift gillnets for the new selective net RS.INP.MX (30% the first year, 30% the second and 40% the third). The RS.INP.MX selective net was developed and tested by the National Fisheries Institute (INAPESCA) of the Secretariat of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA), in collaboration with the National Commission for Protected Areas (CONANP) of the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) and civil society organizations including WWF. Support came from the Alianza WWF-Fundación Carlos Slim, the Marisla Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the International Whaling Commission.

The RS.INP.MX (acronym for “Selective Net of the National Fisheries Institute-Mexico”) is a small driftnet adapted for use with small vessels (6 meter fiberglass “pangas” with four-stroke gasoline outboard engines) that has a number of features that make it more selective than the gillnets, including a turtle excluder device, a “Fisheye” type fish excluder to exclude smaller-sized species and a double headline or lower line with rollers to reduce damage to the seabed. It is composed of lighter materials to reduce fuel consumption and minimize seabed damage. Mesh size decreases progressively along the net to avoid capturing non-target species. The net has hydrodynamic trawl doors to reduce resistance and increase efficiency, and its smaller dimensions mean it can be deployed from artisanal fishing vessels (“pangas”).

The Norm can only be applied effectively if there is participation and commitment from local fishermen. Also, optimal use of the new light trawls requires particular skills; therefore, the support of the government and other organizations through training and temporary compensation programs will be essential.

Why are so many whales dying in Argentine Patagonia?

Press Release Issued on 25 April 2013, by the Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program. Contact: Mariano Sironi – msironi(a); Max Pulsinelli – mpulsinelli(a)

The southern right whales that use Península Valdés, Argentina as a nursery ground have suffered the largest mortality event ever recorded for the species in the world. At least 605 right whales have died along the Argentine coast since 2003, including 538 newborn calves. One hundred and thirteen calves died in 2012 alone. The Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program is working with scientists worldwide to determine why the whales are dying, but as yet, a common cause remains to be found.

Every winter and spring, the calm bays off Península Valdés, a World Heritage Site on the Atlantic coast of Patagonia, Argentina, are filled with southern right whales which come to give birth and raise their calves. However, in recent years these remote beaches are also filled with dead whale calves. In 2008 alone, almost one hundred whales, 89 of them calves, died at Península Valdés and in surrounding areas. 2012 was a record-breaking season, with 116 whale deaths, 113 of them calves.

The difficulty of identifying the cause of this die-off has been a challenge for the researchers studying the whales at Península Valdés. Marcela Uhart, Co-Director of the Program and a Veterinarian formerly with the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Denise McAloose, the lead pathologist of the Program and also the Head of Pathology for the Wildlife Conservation Society, have not been able to determine the cause despite extensive investigations. They say that “though we collect hundreds of tissue samples to test for a variety of infectious, toxic and other diseases, to date we’ve been unable to pin down the cause of these deaths. Every year breaks previous existing patterns in terms of numbers of dead whales, time of the season of highest mortalities, location of stranded whales, etc. The only fact that remains dauntingly constant is that the majority of deaths occur in newborn calves.”

“In 2012 we lost nearly one third of all calves born at the Peninsula. Southern right whales have their first calf when they are nine years old on average,” explains Dr. Mariano Sironi, Scientific Director of the Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas in Argentina and Advisor to the Program. “This means that it won’t be until a decade from now that we will see a significant reduction in the number of calves born, as all of the female calves that died will not be contributing any new offspring to the population.”

Vicky Rowntree, Co-Director of the Program, Director of Ocean Alliance’s 43-year study of the southern right whales of Península Valdés and a research professor at the University of Utah, is concerned about the reduction in population growth rate. “The southern right-whale population is still only a small fraction of its original size, and now we have reason to worry about its recovery. Our long-term data indicate that the Península Valdés whales were increasing steadily at close to 7% per year until recently. Elevated calf mortality is reducing that growth rate substantially (by nearly a third in one estimate). If this continues, we just don’t know what will happen.”

The International Whaling Commission is the global intergovernmental body charged with the conservation of whales and the management of whaling. In 2010, the Commission organized a workshop in Puerto Madryn, Argentina to analyze the right whale die-offs at Península Valdés. Based on discussions of existing evidence, experts from around the world concluded that the three most likely causes of mortality could include malnutrition, infectious disease and biotoxins.

Last week, scientific experts met at a workshop during the 44th Annual Conference of the International Association for Aquatic Animal Medicine (IAAAM) in Sausalito, California, to analyze the new findings of this puzzling whale die-off. Dr. Peter Thomas, of the US Marine Mammal Commission and Chair of the Workshop, said that “until recently, the Valdés right whale population was considered to be healthy and growing at a steady rate after being depleted by whaling in past centuries. However, in view of the many years of high mortality, it seems that the Península Valdés whales and their western South Atlantic ecosystem may be less fit and resilient than previously thought.”

Discussions at the workshop also focused on a very unusual biological phenomenon. At Península Valdés, kelp gulls land on the backs of southern right whales to eat their skin and blubber. Rowntree and Sironi have studied the frequency of gull attacks every year since 1995. “The attacks are very painful and cause large, deep lesions, particularly on the backs of young 2-6 week-old calves. The whales flinch violently and swim away to flee from the attacking gulls”, the researchers explain. “This harassment can last for hours at a time. As a result, right whale mothers and their calves are expending much precious energy during a time-of-year when mothers are fasting and at a site where little to no food is available to replenish fat reserves. The gull harassment and the extensive wounds they make must have a very negative effect on the health and body condition of these whales and is certainly very stressful”.

Determining the cause of the calf mortality at Península Valdés is urgent for this population and in light of the critical status of other right whale populations in the northern hemisphere whose total numbers are about equal to the number of whales that have died at Península Valdés since 2003. “The current mortality of southern right whales at Península Valdés is unparalleled at a global scale. No other right whale population is losing so many calves each season”, says Dr. Frances Gulland, Senior Scientist at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito and Host of the IAAAM Meeting. “The populations of their northern sister species in the North Pacific and the North Atlantic are both ‘endangered’ and the more closely related southern right whale population off the coast of Chile and Peru is ‘critically endangered.’ Should these populations encounter this same crisis, they could go extinct.”

The past seven years of consistently high mortality of right whales at Península Valdés cannot be ignored. It is of critical importance to continue current research and monitoring efforts to find out why so many right whale calves are dying, and what we can do about it.

About the Program

The Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program was established in 2003 to document drivers of disease and mortality for the southern right whales that come to Península Valdés, Argentina to breed. It is run by a consortium of the non-governmental organizations Wildlife Conservation Society, Whale Conservation Institute/Ocean Alliance, Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas and Fundación Patagonia Natural. It began operating with support from the US National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Marine Mammal Commission, and runs with funds from foundations, private donors and the NGOs that lead the Program.

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.

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