Capacity-building Workshop on Bycatch Held in Oman

A capacity building workshop to support the implementation of the Regional Observer Scheme of the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission (IOTC) was organized by the IOTC Secretariat in cooperation with the CMS Secretariat in Muscat from 18-22 October 2015. The Oman Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries hosted the workshop which was opened by Dr Ahmed Mohammed Al-Mazrouai, the Director General of Fisheries Resource Development. Dr Al-Mazrouai is the current Chairman of the IOTC Commission.

Workshop participants

The workshop provided expert training to support the creation and implementation of observer schemes in Oman, Pakistan and Iran with a specific focus on gillnet fisheries. IOTC Contracting Parties are required by IOTC Resolution 11/04 to create observer schemes.

Recognizing that without good data sound fisheries management that also minimizes migratory marine species caught incidentally in fishing operations is not possible, five managers from each country took part in the 5-day workshop to learn from each other and from international experts about the elements of effective observer schemes. They also learned how to identify and, where possible, release migratory species such as marine turtles, cetaceans, sharks and seabirds caught incidentally in purse seines, on long lines and in gillnets. Training was designed to support implementation of national programmes that would increase capacity of the three countries to manage their tuna and tuna-like fisheries sustainably, minimize incidental catch of migratory species and ultimately help the countries provide fisheries and by-catch related data to the IOTC Secretariat to fulfill their IOTC reporting requirements. Minimizing by-catch would also assist the three countries in fulfilling their obligations either under CMS to which Iran and Pakistan are a Contracting Party as well as their responsibilities under the CMS Indian Ocean South East Asian Marine Turtle Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) that all three countries have signed.

Consistent and accurate reporting underpinned by high quality and complete data assists the IOTC Commission in making scientifically based decisions in relation to the various fish stocks it oversees. Information has been particularly lacking in relation to both coastal and off-shore gillnet fisheries which are rapidly expanding in the IOTC region. The situation is challenging for Oman, Pakistan and Iran where upwards of 70% of the catch is from artisanal fishers operating from relatively small boats numbering in the tens of thousands often in difficult operational conditions. The sheer number of boats complicates efforts by governments to establish and resource effective on-board observer schemes. Workshop participants discussed how technology may be able to assist as well as how fishers can be encouraged to minimize by-catch of migratory marine species.

John Carlson provides training at the fish market

Working closely with the IOTC Secretariat the CMS Secretariat identified three experts to act as resource people to the meeting: Robert Baldwin (CMS IOSEA Marine Turtle MOU Advisory Committee member), John Carlson (CMS Sharks MOU Advisory Committee Chair) and shark expert Rima Jabado (Gulf Elasmobranch Project). The latter were financially supported by the CMS Sharks MOU. They were accompanied by Tim Collins (IUCN Cetaceans Specialist Group and the Wildlife Conservation Society) and Moazzam Khan (WWF-Pakistan). The workshop participants were exposed to the by-catch issue, safe handling and release of marine species, the identification of sharks, rays, marine turtles, and seabirds as well as best practice guidance to support implementation of IOTC’s observer scheme. Lyle Glowka, Executive Coordinator, CMS Office – Abu Dhabi, attended the workshop and introduced participants to the Convention, as well as the work of the CMS Dugong MOU, IOSEA Marine Turtles MOU, the Sharks MOU, and the Agreement on Albatross and Petrels on conservation and by-catch.

CMS’s contribution to the workshop is one example of the long-standing strong working relationship between IOTC, CMS and the CMS Family of instruments to help ensure the conservation and management of CMS listed marine species caught incidentally within the IOTC agreement area. Building synergies between IOTC, the Convention and CMS Instruments will help the respective members of each organization – a significant number of which are the same countries –minimize the by-catch of marine migratory species thereby supporting IOTC and Convention requirements including CMS Resolutions 6.2 and 9.18 (By-catch) and Resolution 10.14 (By-catch in Gillnet Fisheries), Resolution 11.20 (Conservation of Sharks and Rays) as well as mandates under the Convention, the CMS Sharks MOU and IOSEA to cooperate with regional fisheries management organizations such as IOTC.

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Vaquita sightings on Mexican Expedition inspire hope

Article prepared by Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho and Barbara Taylor, Chief Scientists of Expedicion Internacional Vaquita Marina 2015.

The Government of Mexico has commissioned a new survey to find out how many vaquitas remain at the start of the emergency 2-year gillnet ban.  The survey was launched by the Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources Rafael Pacchiano Alamán and a host of dignitaries.  Miraculously, vaquitas appeared and were seen by the Secretary and several other dignitaries as if they knew to appear for those who had the power to save them.

Secretary Pacchiano Alamán spots a vaquita through the ‘big eyes’ (Photo by Todd Pusser).

Secretary Pacchiano Alamán spots a vaquita through the ‘big eyes’ (Photo by Todd Pusser).

After 20 days of our 64-day survey on R/V Ocean Starr in the northern Gulf of California, 25 vaquitas have been spotted though some may have been seen multiple times.  We are hopeful of obtaining a useful, updated estimate of population size when the survey is completed. At this stage, we can at least report that vaquitas, unlike baijis when we surveyed the Yangtze River in 2006, are still present, and in habitat that appears healthy and free of gillnets.

The Mexican Government’s emergency ban on gillnets throughout the vaquita’s range is the first large-scale ban on artisanal gillnetting in the world (as reported on this website in mid-January 2015). The ban was accompanied by a compensation package for fishermen and others in the region who rely on the fishing industry for their livelihood.  In hard economic times, the Mexican Government is investing $37 million (US) per year in saving this endemic species.  President Peña Nieto rolled out the emergency strategy, which also includes a new Navy enforcement program, in April in San Felipe, one of the two small fishing villages affected by the ban.

Juan Carlos Salinas looking for vaquitas in the gillnet free waters of the northern Gulf of California

Juan Carlos Salinas looking for vaquitas in the gillnet free waters of the northern Gulf of California

The main method of documenting trends has been and continues to be an innovative scientific method that uses acoustic detectors to monitor vaquitas (details available here in English, and in Spanish).  These detectors provide over 3,000 days of continuous listening each year.  The acoustic monitoring program indicated a 30%/year decline between 2011 and 2014 and it was this finding that prompted the emergency actions (details here).

The present survey, like previous ones, has been a collaborative effort between Mexico and the US.  The survey design involved the world’s top experts to get the most precise estimate possible (more details summarised at Survey Design and in this detailed Report). In waters where more than 700 kilometers of net usually would have been set each day during the start of shrimp season, only a single gillnet has been observed thus far.

The survey involves both a visual team working on a ship in waters more than 20 m deep and the passive acoustic detectors in shallower waters.  There is an area of overlap that will be used to calibrate the visual with the acoustic methods.  To make the abundance estimate as precise as possible, we are using the same ship that was used to obtain the previous two abundance estimates for vaquitas, one in 1997 and the other in 2008.  The visual team uses 6 high-power binoculars to spot the small porpoises that are only visible in very calm seas.  The acoustic effort involves 135 detectors placed in a grid.  Both the visual and the acoustic teams will work from 26 September through 3 December 2015.  Results including the new abundance estimate are expected in the spring of 2016.

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Vaquita decline even faster than expected

The sixth meeting of the Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (CIRVA) was held in San Diego, California, USA, on 22 May 2015, immediately before the annual meeting of the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Committee.

CIRVA-6 commended the Government of Mexico for implementing an emergency two-year gillnet ban throughout the vaquita’s range and also acknowledged the major commitments by the President of Mexico to make enforcement more effective through an interagency team led by the Navy.

However, after reviewing new results of the acoustic monitoring program, including the report of an expert panel that had reconvened in April 2015 to consider the acoustic data from 2011-2014, CIRVA-6 concluded that the vaquita population had declined at an even faster rate than estimated previously. In fact, the estimated rate of decline in vaquita abundance from 2013 to 2014 was 42%!

The CIRVA-6 report (here) recommends that the Government of Mexico proceed immediately with the necessary regulatory measures to make the gillnet ban in the northern Gulf of California permanent. It also recommends that the Government maintain its strong commitment to interagency enforcement and include night-time surveillance as part of that effort.

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Community focused research on the Critically Endangered Yangtze Finless Porpoise

A large-scale interview survey of fishing communities in geographic “hotspots” of the Critically Endangered Yangtze finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis) was conducted in 2011-2012 along the main Yangtze channel and around Dongting and Poyang Lakes by the Zoological Society of London and the Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences. This project which was led by CSG members Samuel Turvey and Wang Ding investigated regional levels, impacts, and socio-economic drivers of potentially harmful fishing activities, together with local attitudes and awareness about regional legislation, in order to provide a more robust baseline to identify appropriate mitigation strategies for porpoise conservation in the Yangtze drainage. Fishing communities within porpoise hotspots have relatively little awareness of key fisheries or porpoise conservation legislation, and changes to legislation are also recommended. Fishers across porpoise hotspots have cumulative annual earnings from fishing of over CNY 150 million and little experience of alternative livelihoods, considerations which must be taken into account when making decisions concerning potential regulation of regional fishing activities for porpoise conservation.The report from this work can be viewed here.

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President of Mexico launches plan to save the vaquita

President Enrique Peña Nieto announces the latest vaquita conservation plan in front of a Defender high-speed boat dedicated to enforcement in the northern Gulf of California.

On 15 April 2015 President Enrique Peña Nieto made the first visit by any Mexican President to San Felipe (one of the two main fishing centers bordering the new gillnet exclusion zone) to announce the Program on the Comprehensive Care of the Upper Gulf, which will require cooperative action by the State Governments of Sonora and Baja California, several federal Ministries, among them Interior, Defense and the Navy, Agriculture and Livestock, and the Attorney General’s Office. This public declaration of a program to save both the vaquita and the totoaba, emphasizing Mexico’s commitment to maintain the 10% of global biodiversity that occurs within its borders, can be an important step towards changing conservation practices. The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources has lead responsibility for coordinating  program implementation.

Backdrop to the ceremonial podium “For the protection of our marine ecosystems and natural resources” depicting  a sea turtle, totoaba and a vaquita.

The program’s main elements are:
  • Expansion of the area of the Vaquita Refuge
  • Suspension of fishing activities that represent risk to vaquitas for two years
  • Financial compensation to licensees, fishermen and related workers in the shrimp, finfish and shark fisheries
  • A community-based surveillance and enforcement scheme
  • Strengthening Mexico’s capacity to combat illegal fishing for totoaba.

As reported on this website in mid-January 2015, the Government of Mexico had agreed to implement a nearly complete ban on the use of gillnets (and longlines, apparently related to totoaba conservation) in the portion of the northern Gulf of California covering all confirmed sightings of vaquitas since the 1980s (1.3 million hectares). Although the ban addresses one key recommendation by the international vaquita recovery team (Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita, or CIRVA), it remains to be seen to what extent implementation of final measures, as published in Mexico´s Federal Register on 10 April 2015, will address CIRVA’s other recommendations, including the concerns about the draft agreement expressed by CIRVA last December.

Within days following the President’s announcement and launch of the new program, reports were received of 85 pangas (gillnet fishing boats) entering the water at San Felipe and of more than 20 pangas fishing within the Vaquita Refuge. Arrests of two offenders were made using the new Defender high-speed enforcement boats operated by the Navy. No illegal fishing within the Vaquita Refuge has been observed since the arrests although there are reports of nighttime fishing that will require special enforcement efforts.

Photo Left – Pangas with illegal fishing gear (shown by the presence of multiple flags indicating multiple nets).  Photo Right: One of the five new Defender high-speed enforcement boats turned over to the Navy during the Presidential ceremony. Two of these will operate in the northern Gulf of California. Navy control of enforcement is a new and important step towards strengthening conservation in this area. 

A positive development is that vaquitas were seen and videotaped in April by a Sea Shepherd vessel, see

The vaquita sighting during Sea Shepherd’s Operation Milagro marks the first time since 2013 the shy porpoise has been spotted in the Sea of Cortez.  Photo: Sea Shepherd / Carolina A Castro. Taken under Aviso de filmación CNANP-00-010

A joint Mexico-US vaquita survey is being planned for later this year. It will include a strong acoustic component to cover the shallow portions of vaquita distribution.

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Conservation of the Arabian Sea Humpback Whale

A humpback whale named ‘Chomp’ breaches off the Dhofar coast of Southern Oman. A male, Chomp is a team favourite, having been encountered widely along the coast of Oman for almost 15 years (Darryl MacDonald/ESO)

The humpback whale population in the Arabian Sea (northern Indian Ocean) is the smallest and most endangered humpback whale population in the world. It is threatened by entanglement in fishing gear, ship strikes, and noise from ship traffic and coastal development. Unlike other humpback whale populations, which travel primarily along predictable migration routes between high-latitude feeding grounds and low-latitude breeding areas, the Arabian Sea population apparently does not migrate but remains within the Arabian Sea year-round. Its range includes the waters of Oman, Iran, Pakistan, India and possibly other countries in the region. In January 2015 the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Emirates Wildlife Society in association with WWF, and Wildlife Conservation Society, with major funding support from the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, convened a workshop of regional and international experts to develop a strategy for conservation of these whales.

A whale named ‘Spitfire’ performs for the camera off the island of Hallaniyah in southern Oman (Tobias Friedrich)

The workshop compiled evidence confirming the perception that the Arabian Sea humpback whale population is at a high risk of extinction (e.g. Pomilla et al 2014 and Van Bressem et al 2014). Participants stressed the need for a regionally collaborative research and conservation program, and outlined a process for developing such a program [for details see workshop report]. Steps were taken at and immediately following the workshop to implement the program. It is important to note that any actions taken to improve the protection of humpback whales in the region are likely to also benefit other large whale species, including blue whales and Bryde’s whales.

Three humpback whales were satellite-tagged in Oman in mid-March 2015, as part of a collaborative research project in Oman under the Environment Society of Oman, and their movements can be monitored at [].

Pomilla, C., Amaral, A.R., Collins, T., Minton, G., Findlay, K., Leslie, M.S., Ponnampalam, L., Baldwin, R., Rosenbaum, H., 2014. The World’s Most Isolated and Distinct Whale Population? Humpback Whales of the Arabian Sea. PLoS ONE 9, e114162.

Van Bressem, M.-F., Minton, G., Collins, T., Willson, A., Baldwin, R., Van Waerebeek, K., 2014. Tattoo-like skin disease in the endangered subpopulation of the Humpback Whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, in Oman (Cetacea: Balaenopteridae). Zoology in the Middle East 61, 1-8.


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Young Gray Whale Sighted near Tokyo Islands

In March 2015 a young gray whale visited waters near Kozushima and Niijima, part of Tokyo’s outlying Izu Islands group. The occasional appearance of gray whales, such as this one, in Japan, together with a stranding on the mainland China coast of Taiwan Strait in November 2011, indicate that although some of the whales that feed in summer off Sakhalin Island (Russia) migrate to wintering areas off North America, some gray whales still use other traditional portions of their historical habitat in East Asia (see Weller et al. 2012 at

Photo Caption: Young gray whale observed near Kozushima, Japan, on 20 March 2015. Photo by Nana Takanawa.

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Finally: Announcement from Mexico on Vaquita Conservation

After months of anticipation, on 23 December 2014 the Government of Mexico finally released its official response to the recommendations of the July 2014 meeting of the international vaquita recovery team (Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita, CIRVA-5); see details in our News Item from August 2014. This took the form of a Regulatory Impact Statement (MIR de Impacto Moderado in Spanish) issued by the fisheries agency through the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock, Rural Development, Fisheries and Food (SAGARPA) (click here for the MIR). The MIR, along with a draft Agreement between the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) and SAGARPA (to read click here), was open briefly for public comment and is expected to come into force soon.

Key elements of the plan include:

  • A complete ban for two years on the use of gillnets in the exclusion zone proposed by CIRVA.
  • An exemption from the ban for the Gulf corvina fishery during the period 1 February to 30 April. This fishery targets spawning aggregations of a large croaker using a ‘rodeo’ or ‘round-up’ technique that encircles the fish with large-mesh gillnets, actively fished.
  • Compensation to all‎ fishermen and others who work in fishery-related activities (e.g. workers in shrimp packing plants).
  • Creation of community enforcement groups to assist authorities in policing the gillnet ban.

CIRVA has provided comments on these documents, explaining some of the strengths and weaknesses of the Government’s plan (to read the comments in English, click here).

There is no doubt that this announcement represents a step forward. However, as indicated in the 7 December 2014 news item posted on this website, intensive gillnet fishing has continued both inside and outside the Vaquita Refuge, with no evidence of a significant effort to enforce existing regulations. Valuable time has been lost, and there is no way of knowing how much closer this has driven the vaquita toward extinction.

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Potential new breeding area revealed for critically endangered Baltic Sea harbour porpoises

The critically endangered vaquita (see news item below) is not the only cetacean seriously threatened by gillnet entanglement. The small subpopulation of harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) in the Baltic Sea has been drastically reduced, initially by large historical commercial catches in the Danish Straits and more recently by incidental mortality in fishing nets, primarily set and drifting gillnets. Other threats probably exist but are not well understood. Baltic Sea harbour porpoises are red-listed as Critically Endangered (click to see assessment).

The need for improved methods of collecting data on Baltic Sea porpoise numbers and range, and how these change over time, led to initiation of the Static Acoustic Monitoring of the Baltic Sea Harbour Porpoise (SAMBAH) project. which involved all EU countries bordering the Baltic Sea.  The overall objectives of the project were to develop and implement a best practice methodology and provide data for reliably assessing porpoise distribution and habitat.

Porpoise echolocation signals were recorded by acoustic data loggers called C-PODs deployed at 304 locations in waters 5-80 m deep throughout the Baltic Sea, making it one of the largest projects of its kind in the world – a huge collaborative effort. The project is now complete and the results have been released.

The number of harbour porpoises in the Baltic Sea was estimated as 447 (95% confidence interval 90–997). Seasonal distribution maps (see below) show a clear spatial separation of populations in the Baltic Proper and in the Western Baltic during May-December when the porpoises mate, give birth and nurse their calves. Spatial modelling of the acoustic data revealed a major breeding area of the Baltic Proper population around the Midsjö banks southeast of Öland, where the presence of porpoises had been virtually unknown previously.

Image Caption: Dots indicate positions of acoustic data loggers (C-PODs) that recorded harbour porpoise echolocation signals in January-April, and May–December 2011 and 2012, combined. The line indicates the likely seasonal division between the population in the Baltic Proper and porpoises in waters to the west.

The combination of the new (albeit very imprecise) population estimate and the new information on porpoise distribution in space and time within the Baltic is expected to enable dedicated conservation action in areas where it is most needed. Also, the methodologies developed by the project offer new possibilities for assessing porpoise densities elsewhere using passive acoustics.


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New evidence that Mexican authorities are not adequately enforcing fishing regulations to protect vaquitas

Mexico’s endemic Gulf of California porpoise, the vaquita (Phocoena sinus), is the most endangered marine mammal species in the world.

A vaquita that died in a gillnet – note the markings left by the net on the animals face.

In that context, the CSG chairman has just received a set of photographs taken on 5 December 2014 over the Vaquita Refuge (see polygonal area in map below). In total, 90 pangas (gillnet fishing boats) were photographed inside the Refuge. Seventeen individual gillnetting “activities” are visible on the aerial imagery. Of these, three are pangas deploying nets, ten are pangas recovering nets, and four are nets “soaking,” unattached to a vessel. Although some pangas appeared to be respecting the Refuge and were observed to the south and east of the boundary, 90 were counted within the vaquita habitat that is supposed to be protected. This imagery and associated observations show that even within the Vaquita Refuge, gillnet fishing continues and the vaquita will continue to decline unless decisive action is taken immediately by Mexican authorities.

Google Earth image showing the location of fishing vessels and gear inside the Vaquita Refuge on December 5th, 2014. Red circles and white lines denote the reserve boundary.

To download the google earth image files shown above in .kmz format, click here.

Below is a selection of aerial photographs of individual fishing vessels and their gear (photos are from location 4, 25, 29, and 11 in the google earth image above)

To read more about the background and history of vaquita conservation click here
For recent vaquita news items showing the progression of conservation efforts see below:

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