“Vaquita”: Efforts to prevent the extinction predicted by 2018

In the last months, the Vaquita (Phocoena sinus) has been the focus of attention, not only at national level and between instances of the environmental sector, but also at international level. With the participation of several Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) the issue has become part of the presidential agenda in México. Some experts consider that if immediate measures are not taken, the species will be extinct by 2018.
The Vaquita is a marine mammal classified in the family of porpoises. They are very similar to dolphins, except for the pointy beak that characterizes them, and because Vaquitas are smaller. The Vaquita is the world´s smallest and most endangered small marine cetacean. The species was scientifically described in 1958 and it has the smallest range of any whale, dolphin or porpoise. The Vaquita has a very restricted population distribution, concentrating only in the upper Gulf of California, in Mexico, off the mouth of the Colorado River. Therefore, it is an endemic species (since it only exists in the region), with a small population that has not yielded much relevant knowledge for conservation.
In fact, to conduct a census by visual counting of specimens has been impossible because direct sighting is extremely rare (from 2013 until a few weeks ago, researchers had not reported the sighting of any single Vaquita). They also live in an environment of low visibility, precluding an aerial survey. Just recently there were developed acoustic monitoring techniques that allowed listening to the sounds made by vaquitas under water, and thus identify them. In this way it was possible to estimate the number of vaquitas that survive. In the best-case scenario the current population is less than 100 specimens.
Source: International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA, for its acronym in Spanish, 2014).
Another important detail in terms of conservation of the species is that we do not have any experience in captive management for conservation, so it is impossible at this stage to establish a program of captive breeding (ex situ) for subsequent reintroduction. There is not much information about their biology, which could be obtained if there were captive specimens to study them.
Unlike other whales, which have been decimated by overfishing, threats to the Vaquita come from exploitation (legal and illegal). In other words, the Vaquita is a collateral victim of fishing activities in the area, being trapped in cast nets used for fishing or catching shrimps.
Mexico has always had a world-leading position in the conservation of whales. The Vaquita is no exception; among the various actions and conservation mechanisms that have been implemented, the following stand out:
Creation of the Biosphere Reserve “Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta”, 1993.Establishment of the Refuge Area for Protection of the Vaquita, 2005.Implementing the Protection Program within the Vaquita Refuge Area located in the western portion of the Upper Gulf of California, 2005.Adopting the Vaquita Conservation Action Plan (PACE: Vaquita for its acronym in Spanish), 2008.
Interesting to note that PACE: Vaquita, -published by the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP for its acronym in Spanish)- is not oriented exclusively to the direct management of the target species, but it focuses on recognizing the importance of sustainable integrated management of natural resources in the area in order to achieve an environment for the conservation of the Vaquita, including diversification and development of alternative fishing methods that reduce risks to the Vaquita. Particularly, since 2011, the Federal Government has allocated financial resources for technological upgrading in the fishing method that takes place in that area.
However, at the Fifth Meeting International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA-5 for its acronym in Spanish), held in July 2014, experts reviewed the information derived from acoustic monitoring and concluded that “Vaquita is in danger of imminent extinction (…), possibly in 2018, if bycatch is not eradicated immediately”. The experts remarked that “illegal fishing has increased in recent years along the distribution area of the Vaquita, especially for the upsurge of the fishery for other endangered species – the Totoaba” which is a fish whose guts are very appreciated in the Asian market for its alleged medicinal properties.
Thus, efforts to reorient the legal fishery have proved insufficient to stop the declining population of the Vaquita, as they have been virtually nullified by the growth of illegal fishing. Therefore, CIRVA specialists proposed a drastic step: to establish a new area of exclusion of gillnets (meshes that forms supported walls with visible buoys and catch the fish by the gills, i.e., in the intermediate part between the head and the body of the fish), to facilitate the implementation of strict surveillance measures in order to avoid fishing in the area.
Source: International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA, for its acronym in Spanish, 2014).
CIRVA’s proposal is very pragmatic, from the point of view of conservation of the Vaquita. The proposed area of exclusion of gillnets has the great advantage that offers reference point in no uncertain ground, so both fishermen and authorities will have full certainty where it starts and where it ends. Instead, the shelter area declared in 2005 is irregular in shape and because it is bounded in geographical coordinates; only boats with GPS could know whether they were inside or outside that area. Another advantage of the proposed maritime area is that it covers potential distribution zone of the Vaquita in the Upper Gulf of California.
The Mexican Federal Government implemented much of the recommendations of CIRVA-5, and in April 10th, 2015, it published -in the Official Journal of the Federation- an agreement to suspend for two years all net fishing in the marine area proposed by the experts.
The monitoring of such temporary suspension was in charge of the Federal Attorney for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA, for its acronym in Spanish) and the National Commission of Aquaculture and Fishing (CONAPESCA), which efforts will be coordinated by the Secretariat of Navy (SEMAR) for surveillance in the Mexican maritime zones. This agreement was reinforced April 16th, 2015, with the presence of President Enrique Peña Nieto in San Felipe, BC, delivering new vessels to the Navy and announcing the following:
To expand the maritime area of protection (referring to the zone of temporary suspension published few days before);Financial compensation for fishermen;Strengthening of inspection and surveillance in the region; andDevelopment of “new forms of fishing, much more friendly, sustainable and respectful of the surrounding environment (…)”.
According to the government’s discourse and official regulations it is being done everything possible to prevent the extinction of the Vaquita in 2018. It remains to see that all this is implemented. Recently, some people and organizations of civil society have expressed their support for these emergency actions. Unfortunately, It is an opportunist support because they do not have prior work for the conservation of the Vaquita.
Moreover, without ignoring the importance of the measures announced, but with the intention of evaluating best practices and lessons learnt in the past, being able to apply them to similar situations, I pose some questions:
What other actions will be necessary to support the preservation of our endangered species?
What is to be done after two years of suspension of fishing in the area, which are definitely not sufficient for recovery of the Vaquita population?
If the PROFEPA has failed, so far, to control illegal fishing of Totoaba, what makes us think that, from now on, this will be controlled?

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