Today is World Oceans Day, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Leonardo DiCaprio and telecom tycoon Carlos Slim just signed a memorandum of understanding committing to conserve marine ecosystems in the Gulf of California and to save the vaquita porpoise—the most endangered marine mammal in the world.
1. How many vaquitas are left?
Thanks to a swift response by the Mexican government, a potentially dangerous confrontation by hostile fisherman towards Sea Shepherd was averted on March 30.
By Zak Smith
There are only about 30 vaquita porpoises left in the world. The smallest and most endangered cetacean species on the planet faces extinction in three years if the people with the power to save it don't take immediate action. Instead of shrugging their shoulders and casting blame elsewhere, the Mexican government, Mexican shrimp fisheries and U.S. shrimp importers must be bold or Mexico will lose this national treasure. But they're not committed to taking the steps necessary to save the vaquita, so we have to motivate them. Boycotting Mexican shrimp is the answer.
By Raffaella Tolicetti
With reproductive instincts pushing them towards the Colorado River Delta, thousands of corvina fish are currently swimming with the tide along the coastal waters of the Pacific Ocean. Making their way to the estuaries, where fresh water mixes with the saline components of the seas, these corvina are unaware that many of them will not even get the chance to lay their eggs in the very particular habitat they depend on to reproduce.
The most recent report from the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita shows that the situation for the vaquita has worsened and there are only 30 individuals that remain in the wild. The population has declined by 90 percent in the last 5 years, according to the scientific committee and the primary cause of death is vaquitas being caught in mesh netting used for the fishing of totoaba for commercial purposes.
The scientific committee argues that this is evidence that totoaba fishing is still occurring in the region, despite a ban on gillnet fishing that is in place until April of this year. Authorities have not yet developed long-term sustainable solutions for the vaquita and local communities in the Upper Gulf of California.
In response to announcements from the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources on the forthcoming implementation of an emergency plan to save the vaquita by moving individuals to a temporary sanctuary, Greenpeace warned that there is no guarantee of the effectiveness of this measure to justify its implementation.
The environmental organization noted that there are risk factors that must be considered including that similar to most cetaceans, porpoises do not do well in captivity. The population has already been drastically exhausted, so any loss is severe and the catch will generate additional stress to the remaining animals.
The probability that the vaquita will survive, reproduce and be ready for reintroduction into its habitat is very slim. Sam Ridgway, president of the National Marine Mammal Foundation, acknowledged in the official communiqué issued by Semarnat that the odds are against the species and justified the measure on the grounds that "scientific communities feel that it is their obligation to act."
"These are desperate times for the vaquita as it staggers toward the brink of extinction. Therefore, it is not surprising that the solutions which are being suggested by those who want to save the species are also, increasingly, more desperate," said Gustavo Ampugnani, executive director of Greenpeace Mexico.
The Mexican government and the international community have fundamentally failed to protect the vaquita. None of the policies implemented in the last 25 years have successfully addressed the known cause of death: totoaba fishing for lucrative international trade.
"This drastic measure will do very little if the underlying problem—totoaba fishing and the use of gillnets—has not been solved. We know what must happen to save the vaquita in their natural habitat: cease the fishing of totoaba, not only with surveillance, but also with the application of socio-economic policies to support the region, involve communities in the protection of the vaquita and develop fishing gear that does not endanger other species," Ampugnani said.
Greenpeace regrets that measures such as capture and reproduction in captivity are being considered, despite warnings for more than two decades about the dramatic decline of the population of this marine mammal.
A controversial, last-ditch plan to round up the last remaining vaquitas—a critically endangered porpoise found only in the Sea of Cortez—may get underway this spring with the aid of U.S. Navy-trained bottlenose dolphins. The vaquitas would be placed in a protected enclosure while efforts are made to get illegal fishing in the area under control.
Their numbers have dropped dramatically in the last 20 years. There were 567 individuals in 1997, 245 in 2008 and just under 100 in 2014. The report puts a high probability on extinction within five years.
Vaquita refuge established in 2005 where gillnet fishing is prohibited.National Geographic
The Mexican government has been working with local fishermen to save the species. In 2005, Mexico established a refuge off San Felipe in the Gulf of California. Gillnet fishing was banned in the refuge. The government is spending $74 million to compensate fishermen and encourage them to use safer fishing methods.
For a time, it worked. Although the population continued to decline, it did so at a slower rate. Scientists hoped it would soon turn around and begin to recover.
But they didn't count on China.
The country's newly-minted millionaires stimulated a demand for dried fish bladders. Called fish maw, they are alleged to possess medicinal properties including the ability to increase fertility. The source of those fish bladders: the Mexican totoaba, a critically endangered fish found in the same waters as the vaquita.
Totoaba bladders are worth up to $5,000 per kilogram and can command as much as $100,000 on the black market in China, according to a 2016 report by the Environmental Investigation Agency. They can be found at retailers in major Chinese cities as well as online sites such as Alibaba. Poachers often take their boats out at night, and use gillnets under the cover of darkness to round up as many totoaba as they can. The vaquita are merely bycatch, caught up in the nets where they often drown or die from stress.
Fish maw wholesaler in Shantou, China (c) EIAEnvironmental Investigation Agency
Details of the plan to save the vaquita are still being worked out.
Plans may involve using dolphins from the Navy Marine Mammal Program, which has studied, trained and deployed these highly intelligent animals since the 1950s. Dolphins would be used to help locate vaquitas. They would then be coaxed into lightweight surface gillnets. It's never been done before with vaquitas, but harbor porpoises in Greenland have been captured safely in a similar manner.
Six fishing boats engaged in illegal activities were spotted by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in Mexico's Sea of Cortez, ending in their arrest by the Mexican Navy.
On Dec. 12, Sea Shepherd's M/V Farley Mowat located poachers on radar before confirming their identities with binoculars. The six fishing boats were working together, using forbidden nets to catch the endangered totoaba bass inside a marine reserve in Mexico's Gulf of California.
"Sea Shepherd's partnership with the Mexican Navy is achieving results," Sea Shepherd founder and CEO Captain Paul Watson said. "Every poaching vessel intercepted and arrested is one step closer to preventing the extinction of the vaquita."
The totoaba is a rare fish native to the Gulf which can measure up to 6 feet in length and weigh as much as 220 lbs. Fishing for totoaba has been banned by the Mexican government since 1975, but it continues to be hunted by poachers solely for its swim bladder, which is sold on the black market in China for more than $20,000 per kilo.
When spotted by the Farley Mowat crew, the poachers began retrieving their nets as fast as they could, while others fled the scene immediately. The Farley Mowat tracked these boats, even while some of them tried to slow it down by maneuvering around the Sea Shepherd vessel.
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society
Throughout the process, the Farley Mowat remained steadfast, following the poachers for about an hour until the Navy arrived. The poachers attempted to evade capture, giving up only when the Navy came at them with rifles drawn. No shots were fired.
"Without Sea Shepherd, the poachers would continue to destroy their own environment," said Farley Mowat Captain Sebastien Fau.
The Farley Mowat and the M/V Sam Simon are currently in the Gulf of California as part of Operation Milagro III to stop the imminent extinction of the endangered vaquita porpoise. Both ships are protecting the vaquita refuge and patrolling for poachers among other duties.
Known as the world's smallest and rarest marine mammal, the vaquita is facing a real threat of extinction. The most recent statistics show the population has dwindled to an estimated less than 60 individuals.
The biggest threat to the vaquita survival are the poachers using illegal gill nets to catch the totoaba. Vaquita often become entangled in the nets and are unable to reach the surface of the water to breathe, causing them to drown.
The arrested poachers were using shrimp nets—forbidden in the vaquita reserve since 2015—and totoaba nets, which are banned in Mexico.
While investigating the nets left by the fleeing fishermen, Farley Mowat found such live animals as sharks, rays, crabs and other fish trapped in the mesh. All were released.
"Our collaboration with the Mexican authorities in patrolling the area and retrieving nets is highly important to the safety of the vaquita refuge and marine reserve," campaign leader and director of Ship Operations Captain Oona Layolle said. "The more boats Sea Shepherd has in the area, the better we can guard against poaching. The vaquita needs all of our efforts now."