Article written by Mel Cosentino following an interview with Lorenzo Rojas Bracho. Mel has been involved in cetacean research since 2006. She is currently doing her PhD at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow and is collaborating with Odyssea.
The vaquita is the world’s smallest cetacean species, reaching only 1.5m in length and 43 kg in weight. Endemic to the upper Gulf of California (Mexico), it has a highly restricted distribution range. So shy and difficult to see, the vaquita was first described in 1958. Just 20 years later it was included as Vulnerable in the IUCN red list, as was then upgraded to Endangered in 1990. Since 1996 it is considered Critically Endangered, meaning it faces high risk of extinction. It is now the most endangered marine mammal.
Their main threat is entanglement in gillnets targeting totoabas, a marine fish that is also endemic to the Gulf of California and endangered. Totoaba can reach up to 2m in length (larger than the vaquita!), and are illegally caught for their swim bladders. In April 2015, a gillnet ban was introduced for a two-year period to protect both the vaquitas and the totoabas, with associated economic compensation for fishermen costing US$37 million a year. However, the two years have passed and the situation for the vaquita has not improved.
Lorenzo Rojas Bracho is the Coordinator of Research and Conservation of Marine Mammals at the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change in Mexico. Their work includes evaluating risk factors for the vaquita through the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA). The Mexican Ministry of Environment, Natural Resources and Fisheries created CIRVA in 1996 to develop a recovery plan for the vaquita based on the best scientific evidence.
What is the biggest threat for the survival of vaquitas?
“A paper published in the 1980’s that listed potential risk factors for the vaquita included the reduction of flow from the Colorado River due to the constructions of dams, which runs from the US into the upper Gulf of California. The reduced flow would modify the ecosystem due to insufficient input of nutrients. However, no subsequent research supports this as an important risk factor for the vaquita, and yet it continues to be cited by the Fisheries sector, including the Federal authorities, and some researchers.
Fishermen can make between US$5000 to US$8500, and even US$10000 per kg of good quality totoaba swim bladder.
It is very attractive to blame the US, so the Fisheries authorities can ‘wash their hands’. But the main threat for vaquitas is (and has been for the past years) the illegal totoaba fishery. Their swim bladder “reaches exorbitant prices in the Chinese market. Fishermen can make between US$5000 to US$8500, and even US$10000 per kg of good quality swim bladder.
The new invention from the Fisheries authorities, is that white sharks are predating the population. There is no evidence for it either. It is fisheries, fisheries, and fisheries, that’s it.”
How is the situation with the fishermen?
“The relationship between the authorities and the fishing communities is pretty bad. Particularly with the National Fisheries Institute. It is very aggressive.
It may sound ‘imperialist’, but if you think about it from the US fishermen point of view, they want to compete in equal conditions.
With an international call to boycott Mexican marine products that are associated with the death of vaquitas, the whole fishery industry may be shut down. The boycott is “not because the US government asks for it, but because the legislation in the US forbids importing fishing products from other countries that do not follow the same conservation measures for marine mammals than in the US. It may sound ‘imperialist’, but if you think about it from the US fishermen point of view, they want to compete in equal conditions. If they must implement restrictive measures not to harm marine mammals and sea turtles, then competitors from other countries should apply the same measures.
“Fishermen are angry. They have threatened me and others. But they have a point. The fishing industry is going to close, how are they going to eat? There might be no economic compensations, there are no alternative fishing gear.
The Fisheries authorities have put us in a very uncomfortable situation, in which it seems we are trying to save the vaquita and extinguish fishermen. But all recommendations we have made since 1997, when we started, have been to develop alternative fishing gear, which they have not been able to do yet.”
… it seems we are trying to save the vaquita and extinguish fishermen. But all recommendations we have made since 1997, when we started, have been to develop alternative fishing gear…
Are fishermen collaborating to save the vaquita?
“We have been working with fishermen for about 20 years and we have a group of 30 fishermen, out of 800, working with us. So, it really is a small group, and they are constantly assaulted by other fishermen. For example, trying to burn the van of a fishermen that developed an alternative gear. Some ‘bucheros’ (those who illegally fish totoaba for their swim bladder – ‘buche’ in Spanish) control small towns, they are like a mafia, and carry guns. Maybe they are a minority but they have the power to incite others toward violent actions.
Not all fishermen are interested in saving the vaquita, and I don’t know if they oppose its conservation, but the circumstances are being badly handled by the authorities and are leading to a situation where everyone is against the vaquita. I think the majority of fishermen want everything to be over. It is not true either that all fishermen are bad. There are good and bad ones, just like in any other walks of life.
If there were alternative fishing gear, fishermen could go out and do what they do best, which is fishing, and they would have something to feed their families, things would be very different.”
Did the economic compensation help the situation?
“The government, out of respect, gave the funds to the fishing cooperatives leaders, because they know who everyone is. But in Mexico we are not Scandinavians to behave well with things like this. These leaders kept money for themselves. I mean, they added their relatives to the programme. We know for example of nieces and nephews who received funds but are not in the fishing industry, as well as someone’s mother who does not even live in the area. That bad distribution of the resources due to the corruption of the leaders (and I don’t mean all of them, but some), left some fishermen out. Their own leaders punished them. So, what could they do? Some came to work with us (because we pay them) but others went to illegal totoaba fishing.
When the government realised what was happening they took the funds and gave them to the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas which improved the situation.”
The Mexican Government has just announced a permanent ban for commercial gillnets in a designated area within the Gulf of California, except to catch curvina. The ban includes prohibition to transport the nets through the area, as well as on land and air between nearby fishing communities. Additionally, all fishing activities carried out from small vessels are forbidden between 9 pm and 5 am.
“But what is missing is to not only ban the use, but the possession of the nets, because people have them in their houses, and the temptation to go fishing is high.”
It is still unclear, though, if fishermen will continue to receive compensation while (if) alternative gears are being developed.
How is the Government seeking to enforce compliance?
For those fishermen holding permits to fish in the designated area, the new legislation requires them to report to the relevant authorities within 24 hours when nets are lost, and to participate in their recovery. Additionally, vessels are require to carry a tracking system for monitoring purposes.
“For the legal fishing of curvina, which is also being exported to Asia for their swim bladder (although at much lower prices), the Vessel Monitoring Systems system makes it possible to locate where curvina fishermen are, and detect if any fishing vessel is in a different area, which could indicate they are catching totoaba.”
How bad is the situation of the vaquita?
“We have followed the long-term trend of the population for 20 years now, and after the expedition Vaquita 2015, using a combination of acoustic and visual methods, we estimated the population to be of fewer than 60 animals. By November 2016 the data indicated that the population had basically decreased a 50%, meaning than more or less 30 animals were left.” The current population size is unknown; the new monitoring season already started and will last until August or September. But the situation does not look good and it is likely that the population have further decreased since then. They already recovered at least 5 dead vaquitas, “3 definitely caught in fishing nets. Of the other 2, one was a foetus, so maybe the mother had a miscarriage and she died too (or maybe not). We also have a report of another animal, that may have died in December or January. So, the situation is terrible.”
The significant population decline in recent years had led to consider extreme measures: to capture the vaquitas and put them in a sanctuary, away from the fishing nets that are killing them. Just like in a Sci-Fi movie, trained dolphins are going to help save the vaquitas. Yes, you read correctly.
Can you tell me more about the Vaquita CPR project (VaquitaCPR: Consortium for Vaquita Conservation, Protection and Recovery)?
Locating the vaquitas is not easy, but even harder is to know where they are to capture them “Since 2015 when we started working on this idea, the problem we could not find a solution for was how to follow the vaquitas to capture them after we have located them visually or acoustically. During a meeting in San Diego, Sam Ridgway, from the National Marine Mammal Foundation, told us to use the dolphins trained by the US navy. Tests have been successfully carried out already, to locate harbour porpoises in the San Francisco bay, under the Golden Gate bridge. So, we are going to bring the dolphins to the upper Gulf of California.”
The team that will be working to capture vaquitas includes about 40 people from Asia, Europe, and North America (including Mexico). Despite the risks involved in this project, the experts are hopeful. Once the vaquitas are in the sanctuary the key is to use the time “to develop alternative fishing gear, and that there is no need for gillnets anymore. So, then the vaquitas could return to the upper Gulf of California, in a gillnet-free environment.”
“There is a risk. But at least we have the chance to save them. If we leave them out there they are going to die, no doubt.”