Five Irrawaddy dolphins rescued by local stranding network

Petch Manopawitr, Deputy Head of IUCN Southeast Asia Group and Director of the IUCN Thailand/Cambodia Transborder Coastal Dolphin Project shared a video link of five Irrawaddy dolphins that became stranded on 5 May 2016 behind a bamboo fence built to prevent erosion at Krasakao Village in the upper Gulf of Thailand near Bangkok.  Volunteers from a local dolphin stranding network and staff from the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources spent a hot afternoon rescuing and successfully releasing the dolphins back to sea. Petch said that the video shows the success of training provided by IUCN to the dolphin stranding network and the positive local support they have generated for dolphin conservation. The dedication of these local people for saving these dolphins under extremely difficult conditions in the deep mud is inspiring and it bodes well for the long-term  success of conservation efforts for Irrawaddy dolphins in the Gulf of Thailand.

The video can be accessed here.


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IUCN Letter to the Indian Minister of Environment – Concern over the impact of India’s National Waterways Act on Ganges River dolphins

In early April attention was drawn to India’s National Waterways Act 2016, which calls for massive reconfiguration of the Ganges and Brahmaputra river systems into inland waterways to facilitate transport cargo, coal, and industrial raw materials and to support tourism development. Given the serious implications for Ganges river dolphins and other riverine fauna, CSG members with long experience working on river dolphin science and conservation in the subcontinent prompted IUCN to send a letter to the Indian Minister of Environment, recommending that greater attention be paid to the potential impacts on biodiversity and offering to provide expert advice. The letter is available here.

A similar letter was sent from the Society for Marine Mammalogy (view at

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‘Extinction Is Imminent’: New report from Vaquita Recovery Team (CIRVA) is released

Analyses of visual sightings and acoustic detections of vaquitas during the range-wide survey last September-December have now been released, suggesting that only about 60 of these tiny ‘desert porpoises’ remain on the planet. And, despite an unprecedented effort by the current Mexican administration and its many international partners (from governments, NGOs, and academic institutions to individual scientists and schoolchildren), ​vaquitas have continued to die in gillnets set to capture totoaba – all to obtain the prized swim bladders of these large, endangered fish that, like the vaquita, are endemic to the Gulf of California. The swim bladders are destined to be smuggled out of Mexico to enter China’s massively destructive black market for what can often seem like everything that’s left of the earth’s vanishing wildlife.

​It is important to emphasize that President Peña Nieto, and especially his Environment Secretary Rafael Pacchiano, have stepped up like no previous Mexican administration to save the vaquita. Their serious, all-out efforts to stop the illegal fishing in Mexico have been undermined by intransigence on the part of Mexico’s fisheries sector together with China’s insatiable, out-of-control appetite for swim bladders.

The report from the Seventh Meeting of the Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (CIRVA-7), held in early May, is now available here. It has been delivered to the Mexican Secretary of the Environment and to the IWC Scientific Committee for consideration at the annual SC meeting which begins this week in Bled, Slovenia.


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New film – “In search of Vaquita”

An excellent new film, called ‘Almas del Mar Vermilion: En Búsqueda de la Vaquita Marina‘ in Spanish, which describes the story of the vaquita, its decline and its conservation  is available at this link: and with English subtitles:

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Mekong River dolphin update

Since the last news report on this website regarding Mekong River dolphins (posted 3 July 2014), the WWF-Cambodia team based in Kratie, working in collaboration with the Fisheries Department in Phnom Penh, have continued their valiant efforts to conserve and study this small, Critically Endangered population. Some of the outcomes of their work are described here. It is great to hear that at least through March, no dead dolphins had been reported in 2016, and several calves had survived their first year of life. Also, the “river guards” program is apparently functioning well.

In late March, Frances Gulland (Wildlife Health Specialist Group) visited Kratie to carry out necropsies on five dolphins that died in 2015. She concluded that one of the two adults had died from entanglement in fishing gear; the other was too decomposed to diagnose the cause of death but it was fat and heavily scarred (typical of adults in this population). Of the three calves, two had been stillborn and one died from trauma. Efforts are ongoing and more are planned to investigate why young calves in this population have been experiencing exceptionally high mortality.

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Stronger protection needed to prevent imminent extinction of Mexican porpoise vaquita, new survey finds

Vaquita, Chris Johnson, 2008

Vaquita, Chris Johnson, 2008

Only about 60 vaquitas remain in the Gulf of California, according to a report presented this week to Mexico’s Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources and the governor of Baja California. This represents a decline of more than 92% since 1997. Unless Mexico extends the gillnet ban and enhances its strong commitment to combat illegal fishing, this small and critically endangered porpoise will be driven to extinction within five years, according to an international team of scientists established by the government of Mexico (the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, CIRVA) who met this week in Ensenada, B.C., Mexico.

Vaquita population and abundance

Vaquita population and abundance

A range-wide survey late last year confirmed earlier results from acoustic monitoring showing a catastrophic decline of vaquitas amid a resurgence of illegal gillnetting for an endangered fish, the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi).  Swim bladders from these fish enter the illegal wildlife trade in China, selling for thousands of dollars per kilo.

CIRVA warns that accidental drowning in gillnets is rapidly driving the vaquita (Phocoena sinus) toward extinction. Previous research showed that the vaquita had declined from around 570 in 1997 to 250 in 2008. The vaquita is the most endangered marine mammal, and indeed one of the most endangered mammals, in the world.

“We are watching this precious native species disappear before our eyes,” said Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, chair of CIRVA and co-chief scientist of the survey. “Our latest survey confirms the catastrophic decline before the emergency gillnet ban. This gillnet ban and strong enforcement must continue if we are to have any hope of saving the vaquita.”

CIRVA praised the unprecedented conservation actions already taken to stop the impact of both illegal totoaba fishing and legal gillnetting by the government of Mexico.  The President imposed an emergency two-year ban on gillnets throughout the range of the vaquita in the northern Gulf of California beginning in May 2015. The Mexican Navy oversees enforcement and local fishing communities are receiving millions of dollars of compensation for lost income. However, CIRVA stresses that the ban must become permanent if the species is to survive and recover.

Gillnet exclusion area_CIRVA 5

Gillnet exclusion area_CIRVA 5

Rafael Pacchiano, Mexico’s Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources, stated that federal authorities are working in a coordinated and committed manner to prevent illegal fishing of totoaba in the area that is safeguarded for vaquitas. They are also combating the illegal trafficking of protected marine species and the presence of organized criminal groups related to this activity.

“Surveillance operations were intensified, especially at night, by incorporating equipment and personnel from the Agency of Environmental Protection (PROFEPA), the Navy of Mexico, the Federal Police and the Department of Fisheries, allowing greater land and maritime surveillance during the curvina fishing season in April,” Secretary Pacchiano said.

Despite the ban, three dead vaquitas were found in March, all having died from entanglement in gillnets probably set for totoaba. Forty-two illegal nets were removed over the past four months by the enforcement team of the Navy and Sea Shepherd’s Operation Milagro.  “The lure of big money for totoaba swim bladders killed at least three more vaquitas, individuals sorely needed to prevent the species’ slide toward extinction,” said Frances Gulland of the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, who performed necropsies on two of the carcasses.

If the current ‘emergency’ gillnet ban is made permanent and, importantly, more effectively enforced, the vaquita may recover. Protection of two other Mexican marine mammal species that were at very low levels has led to recovery. “While there is good reason to expect that vaquitas could recover if deaths in gillnets were stopped.” says Barbara Taylor, co-chief scientist of the survey and a member of the recovery team, “if gillnetting is allowed to resume in the northern Gulf, the vaquita may be extinct by 2022.” Given the dire situation, CIRVA recognizes that every option must be investigated and a plan to examine the feasibility of live capture and a temporary safe haven is in place – but there is no guarantee of success. CIRVA emphasizes that this is not an alternative to a permanent enforced ban on the gillnets that kill vaquitas.

Since vaquitas are accidental casualties of gillnetting, fishing methods and markets must change to protect them. Gillnets also kill hundreds of thousands of porpoises, whales, dolphins and seals worldwide every year.  “If Mexico managed to solve this problem of vaquita mortality in gillnets, it would set an example for other nations, showing that fishermen can fish sustainably and co-exist with porpoises, dolphins, and other sea mammals,” says Taylor.

photo credit Paula A Olson (2008)

photo credit Paula A Olson (2008)

Vaquita in the northern gulf of California. Photo credit Tom Jefferson (2008)

Vaquita in the northern gulf of California. Photo credit Tom Jefferson (2008)


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Vaquita Update: Three documented deaths in one month, not good

Three dead vaquitas were discovered and examined in the northern Gulf of California (Mexico) in March 2016: (1) a floating carcass found by researchers from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in the Vaquita Refuge area on 4 March, (2) a carcass reported by phone to authorities, on the beach north of San Felipe on 13 March and (3) another floating carcass reported to and recovered by the Sea Shepherd team on 24 March. Necropsies were performed on 24-25 March by Frances Gulland (The Marine Mammal Center and US Marine Mammal Commission) and Kerri Danil (Southwest Fisheries Science Centre, NOAA/Fisheries) with support from Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho (Instituto Nacional de Ecología y Cambio Climático). The necropsy reports are available here. In all three cases the cause of death was described as “trauma, entanglement.” Further analyses for biotoxins are being carried out. The nets involved were presumably set illegally to catch totoaba, the large croakers (which like the vaquita are red-listed as Critically Endangered) whose swim bladders are used in a lucrative, illegal Chinese market. The totoaba fishery has surged in recent years and is helping to drive the vaquita rapidly toward extinction. Currently all gillnets are banned in vaquita habitat, but the ban is in effect for only one more year. It is essential and urgent to extend the ban and strengthen enforcement.

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December 2015 Vaquita Update

Members of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita ​​(​CIRVA​)​ attending the Society for Marine Mammalogy​’s​ Biennial Conference in San Francisco took ​the opportunity​ to me​e​t briefly on ​16 December 2015. ​It was largely an informational meeting where participants received brief updates on several issues, including preliminary results of the 2015 abundance survey, the acoustic monitoring program, enforcement, and status of development and testing of alternative fishing gear. CIRVA concluded that past and current efforts to test alternative finfish gear have been inadequate, and recommended that the Government of Mexico invest more resources in gear trials and elicit the involvement of international expertise in the design and implementation of such trials. A comprehensive, transparent, full-scale gear testing program for finfish must be fully supported and implemented as soon as possible to facilitate the transition to alternative finfish gear. The final report of this meeting, called CIRVA Express, is available in English and Spanish here.

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Progress achieved on natural ex situ conservation of the Yangtze finless porpoise

Provided by Professor Wang Ding on 8 December 2015

While ex situ conservation has been seen as an important strategy for endangered terrestrial animals, it is still controversial for cetaceans. The Critically Endangered Yangtze finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis) is the only freshwater porpoise population in the world; it is restricted to the middle and lower reaches of China’s Yangtze River including two adjoining lakes. Due to habitat degradation and mortality from ship strikes and bycatch, the natural population of the subspecies has dramatically declined over the past several decades. According to the latest range-wide survey conducted in 2012, there were only approximately 1000 individuals left and the annual decline rate has been accelerating over the past decade.

In 1992, the Tian-E-Zhou Oxbow, an old natural channel in the middle reaches of the Yangtze, was chosen by the Chinese Government as a natural ex situ protection area for finless porpoises (as proposed by my Cetacean Research Group at the Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences). Since this oxbow used to be connected to the river, its environment and ecological conditions are similar to those of the mainstem. Feasibility studies of the first introduced porpoises confirmed that they can not only survive but also reproduce successfully in the reserve. A census completed on 26th November 2015 revealed that the population had increased rapidly over the last five years. The population is now over 60, compared to only 25 in 2010. Excluding the eight animals introduced in 2014 and 2015, this population has shown a net growth of 108% with 27 new individuals over the past 5 years. Moreover, the population’s fecundity is considered high compared to the wild population. Of the 18 mature females at the Tian-E-Zhou oxbow, nine are pregnant (as diagnosed by ultrasound imaging) and 11 are lactating. Interestingly, of the 11 lactating females, four individuals are also pregnant. There are 17 juveniles younger than two years old, and of these, 11 were identified as newborns in 2015.

This natural ex situ population is regarded as an established Seed Population which we aim to release back into the subspecies’ natural habitat in the future when the Yangtze’s ecological conditions have improved and are more suitable for population recovery. According to previous work by our team, the capacity of the Tian-E-Zhou Oxbow to support finless porpoises, which is limited mainly by the fish resources in the oxbow, is 80 to 100 individuals. We estimate that the population could reach the local carrying capacity as early as 2018 if it keeps growing at the current rate. After 2018, some animals will have to be moved out periodically to regulate the oxbow population. In fact, four animals including 2 males and 2 females were already selected during the 2015 census to support a new natural ex situ population in He-Wang-Miao Oxbow, which is even bigger than the Tian-E-Zhou Oxbow with an estimated capacity for the finless porpoises of over 120 individuals. Our team believes that more ex situ populations will provide a firm basis for the Yangtze finless porpoise conservation project, and ultimately improve our chances to save this Critically Endangered freshwater subspecies.

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Update on Vaquita Survey

The following news article provides an update on the vaquita survey which just ended:

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