As July comes to an end, so does our Species of the Month blog for the vaquita. As a final entry, Cheryl Butner from ¡Viva Vaquita! tells us more about the efforts of the Mexican Government and the measures in place to try and protect and conserve the remaining vaquita.
I hope you've enjoyed learning more about this special porpoise, one of the smallest of all cetaceans, if so next month you're in for a treat as we focus on the largest of all members of the toothed whales .... the orca!
Now that the baiji has been declared “functionally extinct”, the vaquita has taken the unfortunate role as the most endangered cetacean in the world. In the case of the baiji, the Chinese government did very little to prevent the extinction of the species. Luckily for the vaquita, the Mexican government has made a strong commitment - in fact their current effort to save the vaquita is the largest conservation program ever in Mexico.
The vaquita was only first described by scientists in 1958, and they quickly realized that the amount of vaquitas being caught and killed in gillnets was a concern. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that the first major steps were made for their conservation. In 1993 the Mexican government created the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve to protect the two rare species endemic to the region: the vaquita and the totoaba fish. Then in 1994, Mexican authorities listed the vaquita as an endangered species.
In 1996 the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) was created to develop a recovery plan based on the best scientific evidence available, while also considering socio-economic aspects of their conservation policies. During its’ first meeting, CIRVA determined that incidental mortality in gillnets represents the greatest immediate threat to the survival of the species and that vaquita abundance was probably in the low hundreds. At later CIRVA meetings it was determined that by-catch of vaquitas must be reduced to zero, alternative fishing techniques should be developed to replace gillnets, and the international community should be invited to help in vaquita recovery efforts.
In 2005, on CIRVA’S recommendation, the Mexican government created a Vaquita Refuge that encompasses the area of where 80% of vaquita sightings have occurred. Gillnets and shrimp trawling have been banned from the refuge and PROFEPA, Mexico’s environmental law enforcement agency, patrols within the refuge to ensure that no activities that could harm the vaquita are taking place.
With the implementation of the gillnet ban and other fishery restrictions, the Mexican government wanted to ensure that the displaced fisherman were still able to support themselves and their families. In 2007, Mexico’s president announced the Species Conservation Action Program (PACE) for the vaquita. PACE designed mechanisms to remove the fishing gear that threatens the vaquita by: (1) enforcing the existing bans on gillnet fishing in the Biosphere Reserve and Refuge area, and possibly expanding the ban to a larger protected area; (2) encouraging alternative methods of fishing that do not catch vaquitas; and (3) providing economic compensation to fishermen, including a buyout program and assistance with starting alternative businesses.
The buyout program is voluntary and invites the artisanal fishing community to engage in activities other than fishing, with government support. Those wishing to continue fishing have to be involved in an alternative fishing gear program. Through this program the Mexican Government provides financial and technical resources to the fishing community to find new fishing methods that do not harm the vaquita. The following results have been achieved with the PACE vaquita program using the investments made in 2008: (1) the Vaquita Refuge is essentially free of entangling gillnets and shrimp trawlers; (2) 230 artisanal fishing boats have withdrawn from fishing activities; and (3) 105 artisanal fishing boats are participating in the fishing gear replacement program. This is a good start, but with these small-scale fishing boats numbering in the thousands in this region, there is still much work to be done.
The Mexican government has also implemented vaquita education and outreach efforts in the communities of the northern Gulf of California. Informational signs about the vaquita, the Refuge, and the Biosphere Reserve have been constructed in the malecon/beach areas of San Felipe, El Golfo de Santa Clara, and Puerto Peñasco. The Mexican government has also distributed vaquita brochures in these communities, using featuring a vaquita photo taken by Dr. Tom Jefferson during the 2008 vaquita photographic expedition.
Although the fundamental groundwork has been established to protect the vaquita, much work still needs be done to make its’ range completely gillnet-free, and not much time remains to do it. ¡Viva Vaquita! is proud to support Mexico’s efforts to conserve the species and we advocate that interested members from the science community, conservation organizations, fishing communities, and governmental agencies all work together towards this goal. If these efforts are successful, not only will future generations be able to enjoy this wonderful and unique animal, but Mexico will also be able to hold up the vaquita as the first example of saving a species from accidental entanglement in gillnets - a problem that threatens cetaceans and other animals worldwide.
For more information about these efforts please visit:
The Mexican Government’s Action Plan for the Conservation of the Vaquita (PACE) - in Spanish
Photos taken under permit (Oficio No. DR/488/08) from the Secretaria de Medio Ambiente y Resursos Naturales (SEMARNAT), within a natural protected area subject to special management and decreed as such by the Mexican Government.