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During a five day expedition, seven to eight adult vaquitas and one to two calves were spotted. Sea Shepherd

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the Mexican Government are tentatively celebrating the initial success of their enhanced partnership to protect the critically endangered vaquita. The long-term effectiveness of the program is still to be seen.

The vaquita is an endemic species that exists only in a small region of Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California. According to Sea Shepherd, scientists estimate that fewer than 20 vaquitas remain. Some reports, which are a few years old, put that number closer to ten.

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the Mexican Government are tentatively celebrating the initial success of their enhanced partnership to protect the critically endangered vaquita. The long-term effectiveness of the program is still to be seen.

What Is the Vaquita and Why Is It Endangered?

The vaquita is an endemic species that exists only in a small region of Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California. According to Sea Shepherd, scientists estimate that fewer than 20 vaquitas remain. Some reports, which are a few years old, put that number closer to ten.

The smallest of all living cetaceans, the vaquita often gets caught as bycatch in gillnets set to catch totoaba fish. Totoaba, another endangered marine species, is a fish hunted for its swim bladder. It sells on the black market in China for thousands of dollars. Due to entanglement in totoaba fishing gear, the vaquita population has dropped 99 percent over the last decade

History of Protective Measures

Because of this drastic decline, Operation Milagro, which means miracle, was established as the collaboration between Sea Shepherd and various Mexican government agencies and researchers to prevent and remove illegal fishing gear from within the refuge. Since 2015, Sea Shepherd’s fleet has removed over 1,000 pieces of illegal fishing gear from the refuge. In 2017 the Mexican government banned totoaba fishing and the use of gillnets inside the Vaquita Refuge, the UNESCO-recognized and federally protected area where vaquitas live. Furthermore, the government established a Zero Tolerance Area (ZTA) over 225 square miles within the Vaquita Refuge where scientists and conservationists believe the remaining vaquita population is located. This makes it a high-priority area. 

Despite this policy progress, lack of patrol and enforcement caused some to say that the porpoise is still “doomed.” For a period in 2020 and 2021, Sea Shepherd suspended protection efforts due to coronavirus, and Mexico opened up vaquita habitat to fishermen.

New Protocol

Is the tide turning? Slowly, perhaps, but both Sea Shepherd and the Mexican government are hopeful. During a five-day expedition in October and November 2021, scientific surveys in the ZTA revealed seven to eight adult vaquitas and one to two calves, Sea Shepherd Chairman of the Board Pritam Singh said in an April 2022  press conference. Unfortunately, the survey also identified a lot of fishing pangas and nets within the same protected areas. 

Due to this, since November 2021, Sea Shepherd and the Mexican Navy have been jointly patrolling the ZTA of the Vaquita Refuge. In January 2022, the “enhanced Operation Milagro partnership” began and is giving the vaquita “a significantly improved chance for survival,” Sea Shepherd said in a press release. 

New reporting and response protocol in the ZTA has led to a substantial reduction in the number of fishing vessels in the area, Sea Shepherd reported. In the past, Sea Shepherd would identify nets in the water and pull them out – sometimes with local resistance. Under the new protocol, Sea Shepherd spots nets and vessels and reports those sightings to the Navy. The latter then moves the pangas out of the ZTA and pulls nets where necessary. The governmental body provides coordination and security and also has more authority than Sea Shepherd to take action, Sea Shepherd representatives reported. 

Sea Shepherd called the new protocol “extraordinarily effective” within the ZTA to reduce illegal fishing. Their ships report what they see hourly. During the first three days of the protocol being in place, Sea Shepherd ships spotted 58, 35 and 27 illegal fishing vessels in the ZTA. In the three days before the press conference, there were 2, 3 and 1 vessels. 

Sea Shepherd CEO Chuck Lindsey said, “I can say with absolute confidence that our partnership with the Mexican Navy works. Our collaboration is real, it’s effective and, together, we are reducing illegal fishing within the ZTA and improving the vaquita’s chance of survival.”

Long-Term Success?

While positive, the results of the protocol only hold for the ZTA, where efforts have been focused. Fishing levels in other areas are not being monitored as closely or reported on. 

Additionally, to prevent illegal fishing, fishermen are supposed to undergo a government inspection before launching their boats. However, as Reuters reported, when the news agency visited the ZTA, fishermen were seen entering the sea in places where they could avoid inspection. 

“Sea Shepherd… is saying there has been a significant improvement in their work with the Navy since January of 2022,” DJ Schubert, a wildlife biologist for the Animal Welfare Institute, told Reuters.

“The problem is… as long as there is still illegal fishing, it does not help the vaquita. They have to stop illegal fishing completely and permanently in order for the vaquita to have a chance of recovery,” he added, the news report said.

Finally, when asked if any vaquitas had been seen in 2022, Sea Shepherd representatives said none had, but that the creature was “famously shy” and that they “keep hoping.”

Tiffany Duong is a writer, explorer and inspirational speaker. She holds degrees from UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. As a contributing reporter at EcoWatch, she gives voice to what’s happening in the natural world. Her mission is to inspire meaningful action and lasting change. Follow her on Twitter/Instagram/TikTok @tiffmakeswaves.

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What makes okra slimy also binds to tiny plastic particles, scientists have found. flyingv43 / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Scientists have a new weapon in the fight against microplastics, and it’s something you probably wouldn’t expect: okra goo. Turns out, what makes the insides of okra slimy also cause it to bind to tiny plastic particles. If commercialized and added to existing water treatment procedures, use of the plant extract could result in wide-ranging health and environmental benefits.

Microplastics are 5 mm (0.19-inch) or smaller, The Guardian reported. Microplastics enter our water sources (including ocean water, estuary water, freshwater, groundwater and even wastewater) and then sneak into our bodies. 

Scientists have a new weapon in the fight against microplastics, and it’s something you probably wouldn’t expect: okra goo. Turns out, what makes the insides of okra slimy also cause it to bind to tiny plastic particles. If commercialized and added to existing water treatment procedures, use of the plant extract could result in wide-ranging health and environmental benefits.

Microplastics are 5 mm (0.19-inch) or smaller, The Guardian reported. Microplastics enter our water sources (including ocean water, estuary water, freshwater, groundwater and even wastewater) and then sneak into our bodies. 

According to the report, the health effects of ingesting microplastics are currently unclear, though microplastic pollution has been found in human organs and, most recently, in our bloodstream. An older study found that microplastics can kill human cells at concentrations found in our environment. 

So, scientists have focused on how to remove microplastics and other contaminants from our water supplies. Treated water of various types, including wastewater, can be reused for a variety of purposes like irrigation, flushing toilets and drinking, The Guardian reported. Therefore, reducing microplastic pollution in water supplies will also help to keep the contaminants out of our bodies. 

Traditionally, treating wastewater to remove microplastics requires two steps. First, plastic particles that float are skimmed off the top. This removes only a fraction of the total microplastics present, The Guardian reported. 

“Flocculants” – sticky chemicals that promote the clumping of particles – are added to the water to handle the rest. These chemicals attract microplastics into large clumps that then sink to the bottom of the water, making it easier to separate them, Phys.org explained. The biggest issue, however, is that some common flocculants used are also potentially harmful to human health. Polyacrylamide, a fossil-fuel-based gel, is one of the most popular flocculants. It also breaks down to be toxic to humans under certain conditions.

“In order to go ahead and remove microplastic or any other type of materials, we should be using natural materials which are non-toxic,” lead investigator of the new okra research, Rajani Srinivasan, told Phys.org. She explained to EcoWatch, “These materials act as flocculants. They make the contaminant heavier and sink to the bottom. Clean water can be removed from the top and the sludge from the bottom.”

In the past, Srinivasan’s research focused on how goo from okra and other plants could remove textile-based pollutants from water and microorganisms. Then, she thought, why not apply the same principles to microplastics. She and her team at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, TX, USA went in search of food-grade plant extracts to use as non-toxic flocculants. They examined extracts alone and in combinations with each other. 

Microplastic aggregation with okra polysaccharides in simulated water. Rajita Bhuju / Tarleton State University

Overall, Srinivasan and her team found that plant-based flocculants were as good or better than existing synthetic chemicals like polyacrylamide used in water treatment plants to remove microplastics and other pollutants. 

“These materials are eco-friendly and non-toxic. [They] can be used with the existing infrastructure. These materials do not add any toxic materials to the water, so they are safe for the ecosystem,” she said.

Additionally, plant-based flocculants will be “a better alternative” to existing synthetic chemicals being used in water treatment plants because they are renewable, non-toxic, more cost-effective and versatile – in that they efficiently remove a variety of contaminants from various sources of water. They also generate by-products that can be used for other applications (e.g. fenugreek husk, a byproduct of seed mucilage, can be used as animal feed), she added. Finally, and importantly, the plant-based alternatives can be implemented in existing water/wastewater treatment processes, she said

“The whole treatment method with the non-toxic materials uses the same infrastructure,” Srinivasan told Good News Network. “We don’t have to build something new to incorporate these materials for water treatment purposes.”.

Srinivasan and her team found that polysaccharides (a certain extract) from supermarket-bought okra, when paired with those from fenugreek,  removed the most microplastics from ocean water. For freshwater samples, polysaccharides from okra were paired with those from tamarind.

The process can be commercialized and used on a larger scale, she told EcoWatch. To reach that magnitude, more field-scale experiments are required. She hopes her work will enable greater access to clean and safe drinking water, she told Phys.org

Tiffany Duong is a writer, explorer and inspirational speaker. She holds degrees from UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. As a contributing reporter at EcoWatch, she gives voice to what’s happening in the natural world. Her mission is to inspire meaningful action and lasting change. Follow her on Twitter/Instagram/TikTok @tiffmakeswaves.

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Panama is one of the 25 most biodiverse countries on the planet. Geoffroy’s Tamarin is Central America’s only tamarin species and Panama’s smallest monkey. Eduardo Estrada

In Panama, scientists, lawyers and politicians are working together to dismantle current legal systems and popular mindsets about Nature. And, they’re collaborating to build it back better for the future of their country and the planet. 

It all started with Callie Veelenturf, an American marine conservation biologist and National Geographic explorer. While studying sea turtles in Panama, she witnessed harmful practices such as plastic pollution and fishing bycatch harming the environment and the animals that live there. Because Nature’s rights had not been recognized, no causes of action could be brought and no help enlisted. Left without recourse to act on Nature’s behalf, Veelenturf “felt a sense of conviction that taking a rights-based approach to Nature conservation internationally could be the system change that we need to establish balance and harmony with Nature.”

In Panama, scientists, lawyers and politicians are working together to dismantle current legal systems and popular mindsets about Nature. And, they’re collaborating to build it back better for the future of their country and the planet. 

It all started with Callie Veelenturf, an American marine conservation biologist and National Geographic explorer. While studying sea turtles in Panama, she witnessed harmful practices such as plastic pollution and fishing bycatch harming the environment and the animals that live there. Because Nature’s rights had not been recognized, no causes of action could be brought and no help enlisted. Left without recourse to act on Nature’s behalf, Veelenturf “felt a sense of conviction that taking a rights-based approach to Nature conservation internationally could be the system change that we need to establish balance and harmony with Nature.”

Callie Veelenturf measures and examines a Hawksbill sea turtle caught as bycatch in a fisherman’s net in the Pearl Islands archipelago in Panama. Tiffany Duong / Ocean Rebels

In early 2020, she pitched her idea to Panama’s first lady and to Congressperson Juan Diego Vásquez Gutiérrez, the youngest member of the National Assembly. Both were eager to develop this new framework to protect Panama’s biodiversity and ecosystems.

Panama is one of the 25 most megadiverse countries in the world, boasting an “impressive array” of marine and terrestrial wildlife, including many endemic species, Vásquez explained. It, therefore, plays a pivotal role in preserving biodiversity and mitigating climate change. As such, the congressman knew that a Rights of Nature approach “would represent an important paradigm shift in [his] country to centralize our cultural respect and love for nature” and that it would be “decisive” in the protection and restoration of his country’s biodiversity and resources.

While in the field researching sea turtles at the Pearl Islands archipelago in Panama, conservation biologist Callie Veelenturf was inspired by the idea of giving Nature rights. Eduardo Estrada

“In short, this law recognizes that just as humans have inherent rights for existing (and similarly corporations) that Nature does as well,” explained Michelle Bender, the ocean campaigns director at the Earth Law Center. Bender and her team are experts in this specific area of law and lead a global push to codify the rights of nature.

Over the next two years, Veelenturf, the Earth Law Center, Vásquez and his advisors Luisa Araúz and Jorge Jaen developed and proposed that the rights of nature to “exist, persist and regenerate” be legally recognized. In late Feb. 2022, their efforts paid off; Panama’s President Laurentino Cortizo signed the Rights of Nature into national law

Additionally, because western legal systems largely function under a “rights-based” framework, recognizing Nature’s inherent rights provides the natural world (and people wanting to protect it) a legal basis with which to advocate for more protective policies and under which to bring causes of action, Bender told EcoWatch.

So, what exactly does the law do? According to Veelenturf, Bender and Vásquez, it:

  • Acknowledges Nature as a subject of law, with an inherent list of guaranteed rights to be safeguarded – including the rights to exist, persist, and regenerate her life cycles.
  • Requires the state and all persons, whether natural or legal, to respect and protect Nature’s rights.
  • Authorizes any legal or natural person (regardless of nationality) to represent the interests of Nature before the courts and authorities of Panama and to hold government and industry accountable for harm done. Allows for Nature to have standing.
  • Creates a normative framework that enhances and complements the legal and judicial means, resources, and arguments available to environmental lawyers and activists.
  • Shifts the national Panamanian mindset regarding a relationship with Nature from one of separateness and superiority to one of interconnection and interdependence.
  • Establishes a list of Earth-centric principles to be upheld, including “in dubio pro natura,” which means that when in doubt, one must act in favor of protecting Nature. In contrast with widely-held anthropocentric frameworks, which place humans centrally, Panama must now consider and respect planetary boundaries and benefit for the whole, not just human society, or industry, or the one percent.
  • Establishes that the cosmovision and ancestral knowledge of Indigenous peoples must be an integral part of interpreting and applying the Rights of Nature. 
  • Furthers Panama’s defenses against the climate crisis. 

With this latest passage, Panama joins a number of other countries and governments that recognize the Rights of Nature. Some of these include Bolivia, Ecuador, Uganda, and Chile. Bender noted that Rights of Nature laws exist, at some level, in over 20 countries.

James May, a law professor at the Widener University Delaware Law School agreed that the legislation will “make it easier for people to bring legal cases on behalf of rivers, forests and ecosystems,” reported Grist. He noted that this could have major implications for Panama’s land and energy development policies, which are now required to respect and protect the natural world’s new rights. 

Rights of Nature “will require the government to look before they leap regarding decisions that affect Nature,” May told Grist.

As for what’s next, Bender explained that recognizing these rights is just the first step. Now, procedures need to be implemented for causes of action to be brought on behalf of Nature. In Ecuador, 30 similar lawsuits have been brought on behalf of the Rights of Nature. This shift will require the creation of new standards and criteria, such as how to legally determine what is a healthy ecosystem, what is significant and adverse harm and what is sustainable or how much fishing is sustainable, Bender said.

The public must also be educated on and informed of their new power and right to defend Nature. This, and the actual implementation of the new law, will require complex processes and changes, Veelenturf noted. 

She concluded, “The time is now to transform our legal systems. Nature needs us.”

A keel-billed toucan in Panama. Eduardo Estrada

Tiffany Duong is a writer, explorer and inspirational speaker. She holds degrees from UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School. As a contributing reporter at EcoWatch, she gives voice to what’s happening in the natural world. Her mission is to inspire meaningful action and lasting change. Follow her on Twitter/Instagram/TikTok @tiffmakeswaves.

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