Vaquitas with calves seen in September 2018 field effort

A field effort to obtain photographs and biopsies of vaquitas was carried out from the Museo de Ballena’s 130ft vessel, the Narval, plus several small boats (3 RHIBs and a panga) between 22 and 28 September 2018. Cell culture was supplied by the San Diego Zoo and small field coolers specially set up for field use in hot temperatures were supplied by Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC). The purpose of the biopsy effort was to obtain live tissue from a male vaquita to complement the two female cell cultures already maintained in the frozen zoo. SWFSC also loaned much of the equipment needed for the visual searching (25x Big-eye binoculars with stands, handheld binoculars, computers and VHF radios). The visual team tracked vaquitas using a computer program specially modified for use with vaquitas (WinCruz Vaquita) that had been developed for VaquitaCPR (see our news article summarising that effort).  Acoustic equipment (CPODs) was supplied by WWF and SEMARNAT.

Sightings were made on the two good-weather days, with the most exciting result obtained on 26 September.  Sighting #003 was of what was assumed to be a mother-calf pair surfacing within a body length of one another over 30 times.  The mother was photographically matched to the likely mother of the calf that was captured and released in 2017 during the VaquitaCPR operation.  This pair observed in September 2018 was tracked for an hour.

Screen image of sighting #003.  The Narval is in the center with its path indicated by yellow circles.  Each concentric white circle is 1 nautical mile.  The linked red squares show the path of the mother/calf pair showing the meandering and unpredictable pattern that made positioning of the small A boats difficult.

The recently acquired acoustic data indicate that the remaining vaquitas are staying together and within a single small area.  This gives hope that it will be possible to photo-identify remaining individuals (and obtain a biopsy) as well as to guard them effectively during the upcoming totoaba season from December through May.  Many thanks to Diego Ruiz Sabio and Museo de la Ballena for sponsoring the field effort, and to SEMARNAT-CONANP for the research permits.

A New York Times Article on the 17th Oct 2018: Scientists Catch Rare Glimpses of the Endangered Vaquita summarised the field effort.

See below photos and video of the sightings.

Photo/Video credit: Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho

 

 

 

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Ten Updated Baleen Whale Red List Assessments Published in July 2018

Assessments or reassessments of 10 cetacean species, subspecies or populations were published on the IUCN Red List in July 2018. This is in addition to the 19 new assessments that were published in November 2017. The updated assessments were all baleen whales, and included the North Atlantic Right Whale, North Pacific Right Whale, Southern Right Whale, Bowhead Whale, Bryde’s Whale, and Antarctic Minke Whale (see Table 1 for details).  The Chile-Peru subpopulation of Southern Right Whales and the NE Pacific subpopulation of North Pacific Right Whales both remain Critically Endangered. The North Atlantic and North Pacific Right Whale species are both Endangered, as is the Okhotsk Sea subpopulation of Bowhead Whales, and the East Greenland-Svalbard-Barents Sea subpopulation of Bowhead Whales, which was previously classified as Critically Endangered, was downlisted to Endangered. Two species moved out of the Data Deficient category: the Antarctic Minke Whale moved to Near Threatened and Bryde’s Whale to Least Concern.  Work on new assessments is continuing and it is expected that another 41 taxa will be published on the November 2018 Red List update.

Table 1 – Summary of reassessments or new assessments published in the 2018-1 (July) Red List update. (NT = Near Threatened; DD = Data Deficient. CR = Critically Endangered, EN=Endangered, LC=Least Concern)

#
Species
Common name
Taxonomic level
Category
Status change
1
Balaena mysticetus
Bowhead Whale
Species (global)
LC
No change
2
Balaena mysticetus
Bowhead Whale
East Greenland-Svalbard-Barents Sea subpopulation
EN
Downlisted from CR to EN
3
Balaena mysticetus
Bowhead Whale
Okhotsk Sea subpopulation
EN
No change
4
Balaenoptera bonaerensis
Antarctic Minke Whale
Species (global)
NT
DD to NT
5
Balaenoptera edeni
Bryde’s whale
Species (global)
LC
DD to LC
6
Eubalaena australis
Southern Right Whale
Species (global)
LC
No change
7
Eubalaena australis
Southern Right Whale
Chile-Peru subpopulation
CR
No change
8
Eubalaena japonica
North Pacific Right Whale
Species (global)
EN
No change
9
Eubalaena japonica
North Pacific Right Whale
NE Pacific subpopulation
CR
No change
10
Eubalaena glacialis
North Atlantic Right Whale
Species (global)
EN
No change

All 89 cetacean species and an additional 38 subspecies or subpopulations have been assessed and their status and documentation can be found on the IUCN Red List website (redlist.org).  Of the 89 species, 24% are assigned to a threatened category (i.e. CR, EN, VU, NT) and nearly 50% are considered DD although ongoing Red List assessment updates of Data Deficient species is likely to see most of these reclassified in the near future (see Table 2).

Table 2. Summary information on Red List status as of July 2018.

Category
Species
Subspecies/
populations
Total
Critically Endangered
3
16
19
Endangered
10
10
20
Vulnerable
6
7
13
Near Threatened
2
0
2
Least Concern
26
0
26
Lower Risk/Conservation Dependent*
0
1
1
Data Deficient
42
4
46
Total
89
38
127

*This category is no longer recognized; therefore this assessment is out of date.

 

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Update on Yangtze finless porpoise in China

Since 2013, the Yangtze River subspecies of narrow-ridged finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis) has been red-listed as Critically Endangered.  As noted in a news item on this website posted 10 December 2015, the population of Yangtze finless porpoises in the semi-natural reserve at Tian-E-Zhou oxbow had increased rapidly and was more than 60 at that time. Chinese scientists were hopeful that improved management of this reserve would allow its fish resources to increase and the porpoise population there to maintain its positive trajectory. At the same time, a new, considerably larger semi-natural reserve in nearby He-Wang-Miao oxbow was being developed and stocked at least partly by animals from Tian-E-Zhou. The report of the 2018 meeting of the IWC Sub-committee on Small Cetaceans listed as one of the measures needed for a ‘sustained recovery’ of the Yangtze porpoise subspecies as a whole, “Strengthening the ex situ conservation management programs and moving towards releasing animals from the semi-natural reserves into the Yangtze River and adjoining lakes as part of a step-wise restocking plan.”

In the light of the above, it was surprising to learn in late July of this year that the Anhui Provincial Agricultural Committee had approved sending six porpoises from the Xijiang Finless Porpoise Reserve (established in Anhui province in 2016 and currently stocked with about 20 animals including some taken from the wild and some from Tian-E-Zhou) and eight directly from the Tian-E-Zhou reserve (Hubei province) to commercial display facilities at Chimelong (Guangdong) and Haichang (Shanghai). There is no evidence to suggest that either of these facilities has the capability or commitment to carry out a captive breeding program. Even if some of the porpoises brought into the commercial enclosures were to survive and reproduce, such a program has little potential to contribute to the ultimate goal of enhancing the wild population in the Yangtze River and its lakes. In contrast, the steadily growing network of semi-natural reserves appears to be a promising approach with real potential, and removing animals from those reserves to supply commercial display facilities is bound to be counterproductive.

From the information available, this initiative does not appear to be consistent with the mandate of the Saving Yangtze Finless Porpoise Alliance announced by the Chinese Ministry of Agriculture in June 2017 (http://en.people.cn/n3/2017/0614/c90000-9228521.html). Nor is it clear that such a program has the support of China’s internationally recognized finless porpoise experts.  The Cetacean Specialist Group sent a letter to the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs in China on 17th August 2018 strongly urging a reconsideration of the approach and requesting them to refrain from depleting the populations in reserves to supply commercial facilities.

 

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