From October 17 through November 3, 2021, a vaquita research effort was privately funded through the Museo de la Ballena y Ciencias del Mar and a number of private donors. The survey focused on the last stronghold of vaquitas, the Zero Tolerance Area (ZTA) declared in Mexico’s Federal Register of September 24, 2020 as an area defined as follows: Fishing activities of any kind, with any type of vessel, including sport fishing, are permanently and totally prohibited within the “Zero Tolerance Area”. No type of vessel will be allowed to transit or navigate in this area, unless the vessel is authorized to transit, in writing, by the competent authority.
Both vaquitas and large amounts of illegal gillnetting were observed during the survey. The 2021 survey report (available here) documents the study in 2021 that was designed to be as close as possible to the research last conducted in 2019. In the intervening 2 years, net removal coverage was limited in 2020 (see news reports on this website 1, 2, 3) and after January 1, 2021 only the Mexican Navy carried out actions for the removal of nets with no participation by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Museo de la Ballena because strong civil unrest had resulted in the Navy telling the net-removal ships to leave the area. In the absence of a strong programme to support and incentivize the deployment of alternative fishing gear, fishing communities have continued using gillnets for shrimp and finfish including totoaba.
As was the case in 2019, the survey was hindered by the large number of gillnets and pangas, which was documented from the Museo de la Ballena’s ship the Narval in the 2019 Report with 87 and in the 2021 Report with 117 pangas within the ZTA. As specified in the Memorandum of Understanding between the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the Government of Mexico, details on illegal gillnetting were recorded multiple times each survey day and the data were turned over to the Government of Mexico. One apparent enforcement action was witnessed during the survey.
As a consequence of unfavorable weather conditions, no photographs of sufficient quality to identify individual vaquitas were obtained, which made estimation of the number of vaquitas within the ZTA using mark-recapture methods impossible. Instead, a method called Expert Elicitation was used as was done in 2019. The 2019 report concluded that the most likely number seen in the ZTA was about 11 individuals including 3 calves (2019 Report here). The 2021 report found that the most likely number seen in the ZTA was about 7 or 8 individuals including 1 or 2 calves (2021 Final Report here). Given the concentration of fishing within the vaquita’s last 12 x 24km stronghold and the lack of any effort to deter gillnetting within the ZTA over the two-year period, the survival of these individuals is nothing short of remarkable.