Vaquita update October through December 2020

Searching for vaquitas through the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society’s newly purchased ‘big eye’ binoculars. This specialized scientific equipment is part of an increasing scientific conservation effort by SSCS.

Despite the many challenges presented throughout an exceptionally difficult year, a few vaquitas continue to survive.  Cooperative fishermen who participate in the vaquita acoustic monitoring program deployed detectors from September 7 to 12 of 2020 in the Zero Tolerance Area (‘Critical Zone’ on the map figures). A total of nine acoustic encounters were recorded.  In a joint effort with the National Commission for Natural Protected Areas, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) sponsored a downsized visual survey effort from the SSCS ship in November 2020 with two experienced observers from previous vaquita surveys. Despite this small expedition being challenged by unfavorable weather conditions and a vast number of pangas present, two separate sightings of vaquitas were made during the 8 days of limited effort.


A group of pangas with gillnets on full display in daytime despite this gear being illegal within vaquita habitat. Credit Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

SSCS deployed 2 ships to attempt to safeguard vaquita habitat.  Efforts focused on the Zero Tolerance Area, but all panga activity within range of radar units was recorded.  Illegal fishing increased with the onset of shrimp season in October 2020 (Figure 1).  The vaquita sightings were obtained despite the presence of 1185 pangas that were counted throughout November, with the most observed simultaneously being over 60 (Figure 2).  Nearly all of these pangas were gillnetting for shrimp.

The Government of Mexico arrested some of the leaders of totoaba poaching who are now waiting in jail to go to trial.  Despite these arrests, illegal fishing remains at high levels and takes place day and night (Figure 3), with repeated harassment of net-removal crews.


Figure 1. Panga positions in October 2020 where each color represents the approximate number of pangas observed from the survey vessel at a given time and location. Yellow dots indicate individual pangas that were confirmed to be fishing. SSCS effort was concentrated in the Zero Tolerance Area (outlined in red but labeled as the ‘Critical Zone’ in the map legend). Source: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Internal reports, October 2020

Figure 2. Panga positions in November 2020 where each color represents the approximate number of pangas observed at a given time. Effort by net-removal vessels that reported panga positions was concentrated in the Zero Tolerance Area (outlined in red but labeled as the ‘Critical Zone’ in the map legend). Source: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Internal reports, November 2020.

Figure 3. Panga positions in December 2020 where each color represents the approximate number of pangas observed at a given time. Effort was concentrated in the Zero Tolerance Area (outlined in red but labeled as the ‘Critical Zone’ in the map legend) but fishing was observed widely in the Vaquita Refuge (inset). Source: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Internal reports, December 2020.

Fishermen have no incentives to change their traditional fishing practices — very little alternative fishing gear, and few alternative livelihoods to feed their families. Illegal fishing remains uncontrolled. There were no net-removal efforts at the end of the last totoaba season (May 2020) due to SSCS and the Museo de Ballena having to leave the area on 22nd March due to the evolving global pandemic, which hit the Mexican villages of San Felipe and El Golfo de Santa Clara very hard. Many fishermen and their families became infected. We especially honor Paco Valverede who succumbed to the virus. Paco learned from his father and his family of fishermen how to fish and he loved and respected the ocean. He studied biology but always remained faithful to his origins as a fisherman. He fought long and hard for conservation of marine life and environmentally responsible fisheries in the Upper Gulf of California. Those who knew and worked with him considered Paco indispensable and irreplaceable, a true hero and a friend of vaquitas.  For more details, see

22 Updated Cetacean Red List Assessments Published in December 2020

Between 2018 and 2020, the Cetacean Specialist Group has undertaken a re-assessment of all cetacean species, a task that is now virtually complete. The 2020-3 edition of the Red List, which was published in December 2020, included 22 assessments or reassessments of cetacean species, subspecies or populations and included almost all of the beaked whales. This is in addition to 3 assessments published earlier in 2020, 6 in December 2019, 2 in July 2019, 5 in March 2019, 35 in November 2018, 10 in July 2018, and 19 in November 2017. A total of 102 updated or new cetacean assessments have been published in the last 2 ½ years.


The updated assessments included almost all of the beaked whales many of which moved out of the Data Deficient category to Least Concern, while Perrin’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon perrini) is now Endangered, and Stejneger’s beaked whale (Mesoplodon stejnegeri) and a newly described species, Sato’s beaked whale (Berardius minimus), are both Near Threatened. Most of the changes for beaked whales resulted from the IUCN Guidelines changing the definition of Data Deficient and thus are not necessarily genuine changes in conservation status. To remain as Data Deficient, a species had to plausibly belong in any category from Critically Endangered to Least Concern.


Besides the beaked whales, the South American freshwater dolphin Sotalia fluviatilis, commonly known as the tucuxi, was reassessed and moved from Data Deficient to Endangered (Table 1). This change was due in large part to improved data and analyses. Re-assessments of the common dolphin (Delphinus delphis) and northern bottlenose whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus) will be published in the next Red List edition in 2021. Work on the two cetacean species that still require reassessment, and on some of the more out of date subpopulation and subspecies assessments, will begin in 2021.


Table 1 – Summary of updated assessments and new assessments published in the 2020-3 edition of the Red List. (NT = Near Threatened, DD = Data Deficient, CR = Critically Endangered, EN = Endangered, LC = Least Concern).

# Species/Subspecies Common name Taxonomic level Category Status change
1 Berardius arnuxii Arnoux’s beaked whale Species (global) LC DD -> LC
2 Berardius bairdii Baird’s beaked whale Species (global) LC DD -> LC
3 Berardius minimus Sato’s beaked whale Species (global) NT New listing
4 Hyperoodon planifrons Southern bottlenose whale Species (global) LC No change
5 Indopacetus pacificus Longman’s beaked whale Species (global) LC DD -> LC
6 Mesoplodon bidens Sowerby’s beaked whale Species (global) LC DD -> LC
7 Mesoplodon bowdoini Andrews’ beaked whale Species (global) DD No change
8 Mesoplodon carlhubbsi Hubbs’ beaked whale Species (global) DD No change
9 Mesoplodon densirostris Blainville’s beaked whale Species (global) LC DD -> LC
10 Mesoplodon europaeus Gervais’ beaked whale Species (global) LC DD -> LC
11 Mesoplodon ginkgodens Ginkgo-toothed beaked whale Species (global) DD No change
12 Mesoplodon grayi Gray’s beaked whale Species (global) LC DD -> LC
13 Mesoplodon hectori Hector’s beaked whale Species (global) DD No change
14 Mesoplodon hotaula Deraniyagala’s beaked whale Species (global) DD No change
15 Mesoplodon layardii Strap-toothed beaked whale Species (global) LC DD -> LC
16 Mesoplodon mirus True’s beaked whale Species (global) LC DD -> LC
17 Mesoplodon perrini Perrin’s beaked whale Species (global) EN DD -> EN
18 Mesoplodon peruvianus Pygmy beaked whale Species (global) LC DD -> LC
19 Mesoplodon stejnegeri Stejneger’s beaked whale Species (global) NT DD -> NT
20 Mesoplodon traversii Spade-toothed beaked whale Species (global) DD No change
21 Sotalia fluviatilis Tucuxi Species (global) EN DD -> EN
22 Ziphius cavirostris Cuvier’s beaked whale Species (global) LC No change


The Red List status and documentation for 90 cetacean species as well as 12 subspecies and 28 subpopulations can be found on the IUCN Red List website ( Of the 90 species, 24% are assigned to a threatened category (i.e. CR, EN, VU) and 11% are considered DD (Table 2). It should also be emphasized that there is strong interest in completing additional assessments of subpopulations that are known or thought to be at higher risk than the species as a whole (e.g. Killer Whales, Belugas, Dusky Dolphins).


Table 2. Summary information on Red List status as of December 2020.

Category Species Subspecies Subpopulations Total
Critically Endangered 4 4 14 22
Endangered 11 4 7 22
Vulnerable 7 4 5 16
Near Threatened 9 0 0 9
Least Concern 49 0 0 49
Data Deficient 10 0 2 12
Total 90 12 28 130


Nuremberg Workshop on Ex-situ Options for Cetacean Conservation and the Launch of ICPC


Nuremberg ESOCC Workshop


The extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin, or baiji, in China in 2006, and the recent precipitous decline of the vaquita in Mexico, have highlighted the urgency of gaining information and taking action to anticipate and prevent such rapid declines in other threatened species and populations of small cetaceans.  With this in mind, a workshop entitled “Ex situ Options for Cetacean Conservation” (ESOCC) was held in Nuremberg, Germany, from 14–18 December 2018.  The ESOCC workshop discussions centred on eight species of small cetaceans that are designated in the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Critically Endangered, Endangered, or Vulnerable.


These species (listed below alphabetically, not by Red List status) all have shallow-water or freshwater distributions that entirely overlap areas used intensively by people.


  • Atlantic humpback dolphin (Sousa teuszii) – Critically Endangered
  • Franciscana (Pontoporia blainvillei) –Vulnerable
  • Indian Ocean humpback dolphin (Sousa plumbea) – Endangered
  • Inia (Inia geoffrensis) – Endangered
  • Irrawaddy dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris) – Endangered
  • South Asian river dolphin (Platanista gangetica) – Endangered
  • Tucuxi (Sotalia fluviatilis) – Data Deficient (but in the process of being reclassified as Endangered)
  • Yangtze finless porpoise (Neophocoena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis) – Critically Endangered


The resulting workshop report, published as an IUCN SSC Occasional Paper, concludes that it is necessary  to act with urgency to consider critically needed conservation measures both in wild environments within the species’ geographic range (in situ) and in protected or modified environments within or outside that range (ex situ). This holistic framework for species conservation planning is known as the One Plan approach.


The workshop report, executive summary (in English, French, German, Japanese, Mandarin, Portuguese and Spanish) and a press release announcing the main recommendations are all available for download.


The workshop recommended (see full details in the Report) that:

  • actions to conserve the most threatened small cetaceans in the wild be identified, funded and implemented with a sense of urgency.
  • Priority be given to Atlantic humpback dolphins because they now exist only in low numbers and highly fragmented populations, threatened by increasing entanglement in gillnets and the consumption and trade of their meat.
  • for each of the species reviewed, veterinary field protocols be applied during research activities such as health assessment, biopsy collection, and necropsy. Because practical experience with handling many of the species is lacking and their response to handling is critical to determining whether ex situ options could be effective, it was also recommended that whenever opportunities to handle animals arise (e.g. during rescues of stranded Ganges and Indus river dolphins or tagging studies), relevant information and data should be collected (e.g. on health parameters and blood values).
  • implementing the One Plan approach for several species as soon as possible. These initial plans can demonstrate the potential to decrease the risk of extinction by ensuring that the best balance between in situ and ex situ management is used, and to preserve and restore habitat and maintain or restore healthy in situ


Integrated Conservation Planning for Cetaceans


Following the Nuremburg workshop, a group of the workshop organizers and participants created an initiative within the Cetacean Specialist Group, Integrated Conservation Planning for Cetaceans (ICPC) . The ICPC team has begun the work of developing an action plan for each of the most threatened dolphin and porpoise species and populations, prioritized by their conservation status, the imminence of catastrophic decline, and the potential for effective mitigation. Its initial focus is on four high-priority projects identified at the Nuremburg workshop report:


  1. Atlantic humpback dolphins in Africa are suffering from multiple pressures, the impacts of which are not fully understood. Community-based research was recommended to fill knowledge gaps on animal abundance, geographic distribution, and threats to the species’ survival. This crucial information will help to inform future integrated conservation efforts.


  1. Yangtze finless porpoises in China are struggling to survive due to many human-induced stressors including accidental deaths in fishing gear, sand mining, environmental pollution, vessel traffic, and overfishing. In an effort to assess the ongoing integrated conservation program for this subspecies as a model for other dolphins and porpoises, a program review within the framework of the One Plan approach is


  1. Franciscana dolphins in Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina are dying in gillnets in large numbers. Recommendations for this species include conducting health assessments of live adult dolphins, and improving the care of orphaned franciscana calves found stranded on beaches.


  1. Indus and Ganges river dolphins in Pakistan and India become trapped and often die in irrigation canals. Efforts will focus on strengthening the animal handling and veterinary capacity of local researchers to conduct health assessments on rescued animals.


Resources and Downloads:

Nuremberg Workshop Full IUCN Occasional Paper Report

Nuremberg Workshop Executive Summary

Nuremberg Workshop Press Release