Sea Shepherd and Mexico Boost Efforts to Protect Vaquita, But Is It Enough?

A vaquita sighting
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.

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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