The Vanishing Vaquita

The worlds smallest cetacean (reaching lengths of only 4-5 ft.) and limited to a small home range in Baja, California is in dire straits. The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is a notoriously shy and difficult to study therefore underwater acoustic technology has been utilised by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita to monitor their latest numbers. This study revealed their numbers have dwindled below 100 with an estimate 97 individuals of which only about 25 are reproductive females.

The Vaquita within their protected area. Photo: Paula Olson (NOAA Contractor) taken under permit (Oficio No. DR/488/08)

What is the cause of their decline?

Illegal gillnets fisheries put this species as risk of by-catch and with there numbers so small even the loss of one individuals has detrimental effects on the population as a whole.

The totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), a marine fish also indigenous to the region, is the target of the gillnet fisheries. At up to 6 feet in length they are a smilier size to the vaquita. The totoaba is a valued catch as its swim bladder is highly prized in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), meaning that an individual catch can go for thousands of dollars. The high price it fetches at market means that regulations to ban commercials gill net fisheries in key vaquita habitat have been compromised. I think this quote from Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho (Coordinator of Marine Mammal Research and Conservation at the National Institute of Ecology, in Ensenda, Baja California, Mexico) really hits the nail on the head in regards to why fishers are finding it hard to resist fishing for totoaba:

“It’s like trying to control traffic while someone’s throwing money from the Empire State Building,”

The Next Extinction

Scientists now believe it may become the second cetacean species to go extinct on our watch. This is following the Baiji or Yangtze River dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer) declared functional extinct in 2006 and may also be sadly followed or preceded by Maui’s Dolphin (Cephalorhynchus hectori maui) in New Zealand whose numbers are as low as 55 and are also threatened by gill net fisheries.

Vaquita Gillnet By-Catch Victim. Photo: Conservation International Mexico (http://www.vivavaquita.org)

What is being done?

Efforts to protect this species include the bans on gill net fisheries within key parts of their range as well as projects to encourage and promote fishermen to switch to less detrimental fishing practices. This practices including small trawls in place of gillnets in the shrimp fishery and line and trap fisheries for the finfish fishery. Further to the some fishermen have moved into shellfish fisheries for underexploited species in the region such as; geoduck, oysters and clams.

There have been obstacles in the way of switching fisheries practices though. Predominantly, that gillnet fisheries hamper the ability of these other fisheries to function. Additionally that fishermen in the region are reluctant to switch to the unknown even though training and incentives to switch have been provided.

The only way to save the vaquita now is with an outright ban and strict enforcement of the ban on gill net fisheries. Enforcement will require long-term patrols to monitor the region and ensure there are no breaches. The removal and ban of all gillnet fisheries means that other fisheries will actually be able to flourish and become more profitable than they are currently able to with gillnets hampering their progress. It is hoped that a strictly enforced ban will promote a shift in fishing methods and also an increase in the development of superior fishing gear and technology when the easy option (gillnets) is taken away.

We can only hope that this story becomes one of those magical and happy conservation success stories. It is not too late…Yet.

You can read the full report and revocery plan by the Comite Internacional para la Recuperacio n de la Vaquita (CIRVA) which, is the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita here.

Do you think there is still hope? Can we save these cetacean species in dire straits? Do you think there are better methods that should be used? Let me know in the comments below!

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