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 https://www.facebook.com/VaquitaCPR/posts/2819580278146115



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