Massive New Marine Reserve – Thanks Obama!

There is lots I wanted to talk about this week and wasn’t sure where to start. There has been quite a lot of interesting marine mammal and marine developments going on.

What has most excited me and come back into the news a lot is the expansion of the marine protected area in the Pacific – Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument – which has been massively expanded through President Obama using his executive powers and the antiquities act to bypass congress and set up the largest marine protected area in the world. The area is being enlarged to more than 490,000 square miles from just over 87,000 square miles that were initially protected by President Bush.

Melonhead whales (Peponocephala electra) Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. Photo credit: Kydd Pollock

Melonhead whales (Peponocephala electra) Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument [Photo Credit: Kydd Pollock].

This creation is very positive news as the area is going to be a fully protected no take zone with no commercial fishing or other marine degrading actives allowed. This large area will protect deep sea coral reefs and underwater sea mounts which, are hot spots for biodiversity alongside large areas of ocean that are important for migrating species including marine mammals such as humpback whales as well as sea turtles, bull sharks and tuna species.

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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,”

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