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Sea Shepherd Suspends Efforts to Protect Endangered Vaquitas Due to Coronavirus

Oceans
Sea Shepherd Suspends Efforts to Protect Endangered Vaquitas Due to Coronavirus
Crew members sail in the Gulf of California, Mexico, on March 8, 2018, as part of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society's operation to save the critically endangered vaquita porpoise. GUILLERMO ARIAS / AFP / Getty Images

By Elizabeth Claire Alberts

Marine conservation group Sea Shepherd has made the difficult decision to suspend its campaign to protect the critically endangered vaquita porpoise in Mexico's Upper Gulf of California.


"We haven't had much choice because we're dependent upon getting fuel from the Mexican government to do the patrols, and we weren't able to get the fuel," Captain Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd, told Mongabay. "We have to send the vessels back to Mazatlán, and once we get there, of course, then we're not allowed to leave because of the [COVID-19] quarantine."

Two of the Sea Shepherd ship that patrol the vaquita refuge. Jack Hutton / Sea Shepherd

Vaquitas (Phocoena sinus), which are endemic to the Sea of Cortez in the Upper Gulf of California, are on the brink of extinction, although there are different estimates of how many are left. A recent study calculated there to be fewer than 19 vaquitas left as of the summer of 2018. Another report, conducted by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), suggested only about 10 individuals remain, although it also stated that there's a 95 percent chance that 6 to 22 individuals continue to exist.

The biggest threat to the vaquitas is the illegal fishing of totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), which, like the vaquita, is classified as a critically endangered species by the IUCN. The totoaba's swim bladder is believed to have special medicinal qualities in traditional Asian medicine, despite there being no scientific evidence to support this. The bladders, which are used to make a "curative" soup, can fetch prices up to $14,000 USD, according to the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), and they're regularly trafficked in the global wildlife trade.

A vaquita surfacing in the Sea of Cortez. Sandra Alba / Sea Shepherd

Since totoabas are about the same size as vaquitas, vaquitas easily get caught in the gillnets meant to capture totoabas. Gillnets are also used to catch shrimp in the Sea of Cortez, which wreaked further havoc on the vaquita population.

In 2015, the Mexican government placed a two-year ban on gillnet fishing in the Sea of Cortez, and in 2016, it announced a total ban on gillnet fishing. Despite these legislative efforts, fishing has continued in the area. During a patrol in October 2019, Sea Shepherd reported seeing more than 70 fishing boats in the vaquita's critical habitat.

A dead vaquita floating in the ocean. Robbie Newby / Sea Shepherd

Last month, the US National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced that it would ban all imports of Mexican shrimp and other seafood caught in the vaquita's refuge, an action taken under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Conservationists hope this latest step will provide enough protection to help the vaquita survive.

"This is exactly how the law protecting marine mammals is supposed to work: if Mexico's fisheries kill vaquita at a rate that violates US standards, the US must ban imports," Zak Smith, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), said in a statement. "Mexico has no choice but to eliminate the destructive fishing taking place in the northern Gulf of California that is driving the vaquita to extinction. It's the only hope the vaquita has for survival, and it is required if Mexico wants to resume exporting these products to the United States."

Sea Shepherd crew members removing illegal gillnets from the Upper Gulf of California. Robbie Newby / Sea Shepherd

Sea Shepherd has spent the last six years patrolling the vaquita refuge, often with scientists and photographers on board to collect data on the vaquitas and to conduct acoustical monitoring. The group has also retrieved 1,200 pieces of illegal fishing gear from the vaquita habitat, according to a statement on its website.

While Sea Shepherd isn't able to be in the Sea of Cortez right now, the Mexican navy will be monitoring the waters, Watson said. Fshing activities may decrease during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it's also possible that poaching will continue — or even increase. "Poachers take advantage of opportunities," Watson said.

Sea Shepherd crew will return to the vaquita refuge as soon as it can.

Illegal fishing activity taking place in the Sea of Cortez. Sea Shepherd

The vaquita may be fighting for survival, but Kate O'Connell, marine wildlife consultant at AWI, believes there's still hope.

The vaquita sightings demonstrate that vaquita remain, and those that have been spotted appear healthy," O'Connell said. "New research … shows that vaquita may reproduce annually, which would increase the species' potential to recover from its current low numbers. While the situation is daunting, other marine mammal species have come back from extremely low numbers, including the northern elephant seal, which was nearly exterminated in the 19th century, and has rebounded from less than 100 individuals to well over 100,000."

Editor's note: Captain Watson has clarified his comment to say that Sea Shepherd is not actually dependent on the Mexican government for fuel, and that the organization has been unable to obtain fuel because of ports being closed and resources not being guaranteed during the COVID-19 crisis.

Reposted with permission from Mongabay.

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Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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