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.

 

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Totoaba season ends with 400 active totoaba gillnets removed

Although efforts to remove lethal gillnets from the vaquita’s habitat will continue, the totoaba spawning season is now past.  With fewer than 30 vaquitas remaining and the idea of rescuing some by capturing them and placing them in a protected enclosure not considered viable at this stage, conservation action is now focused on enforcement of the gillnet ban and net removal. May saw a dramatic drop in the number of nets retrieved.  The Farley Mowat finished operations and effectively concluded this year’s operations on 4 June. No active totoaba nets were removed in June. During the 2017/2018 totoaba spawning season as a whole (December through May), 400 active totoaba nets were removed by 4 different vessels representing 77,900 m of net. One dead vaquita was found that had died of gillnet entanglement (see March Report for necropsy results).  A video summary film of the season has been released by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society here.

Dec
Jan
Feb
Mar
Apr
May
Total
Narval
n/a
2
36
20
19
1
78
Farley Mowat
2
0
9
44
69
10
134
JPD
16
27
51
5
n/a
n/a
99
Sharpie
n/a
n/a
n/a
35
51
3
89
Total
18
30
96
104
139
14
400

The map (Source: Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Internal Reports) shows active nets removed from December 2017-June 4, 2018 by all net removal operations. The yellow dots are active totoaba nets removed prior to May and the black dots those removed during May only. The black line denotes the Vaquita Refuge and the orange line the enhanced enforcement area.

The data clearly show that illegal fishing remains at a very high level in areas known to have contained vaquitas last fall.  A huge “thank you” goes out to all participants in this effort: the Department of the Environment (SEMARNAT), Sea Shepherd’s Operation Milagro, Museo de la Ballena, the Mexican Navy and Army, PEMEX, WWF-Mexico, Parley for the Oceans, PRONATURA, World Animal Protection, and the fishermen’s organizations PESCA ABC and Cooperativa Islas del Golfo. The Mexican Fisheries Department CONAPESCA recently started supporting the program as well.

Acoustic monitoring will begin in a few weeks and last through mid-August.  This monthly reporting on the CSG website will be suspended for now.

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Over 800 totoaba swim bladders seized– April 2018 Vaquita update

In several separate enforcement actions, over 800 totoaba swim bladders were seized in April 2018 (see news article).  An in-depth television news story on the illegal totoaba fishery and enforcement efforts was also released (available in Spanish here).

On 12 April, shots were fired at the Sea Shepherd vessel M/V Sharpie followed by a quick response from the Mexican Federal Police officers on board and by the arrival of a Navy patrol vessel in under 10 minutes (see video here).

Despite these dangers, the net removal effort has continued and more nets were removed in April than in any past month during totoaba season.  Although numbers are not directly comparable across years, the 139 removed in April compared with the 36 removed last April makes clear the high level of illegal fishing and the failure to protect vaquitas through enforcement action.

With fewer than 30 vaquitas remaining and the idea of rescuing some by capturing them and placing them in a managed enclosure not considered viable, conservation action is now focussed on enforcement and net removal. The current enhanced net removal effort during the totoaba spawning season will last through May 2018. Because the net removal effort is critical to saving the vaquita, progress is updated on this website monthly.

The map (Source: Siegenthaler, N. 2018.  Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Internal Reports) shows active nets removed from December 2017-April 2018 by all net removal operations.  The yellow dots are active totoaba nets removed prior to March 2018 and the black dots are those removed during March only.  The black line denotes the Vaquita Refuge and the orange line the enhanced enforcement area.

The table shows the number of active totoaba nets removed, by ship, during the totoaba spawning season.  JPD stands for the ship Jean Paul Dejoria, which was replaced by the Sharpie in March.  The Narval belongs to the Museo de Ballena of La Paz and the other ships to the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. “n/a” stand for ‘not applicable’ since the ships did not operate in that month.

December
January
February
March
April
Total
Narval
n/a
2
36
20
19
77
Farley Mowat
2
0
9
44
69
124
JPD
16
27
51
5
n/a
99
Sharpie
n/a
n/a
n/a
35
51
86
Total
18
30
96
104
139
386

Despite focusing the enhanced net removal efforts and enforcement in areas of overlap between vaquita distribution and illegal fishing activity, the removal of active totoaba nets is apparently following the pattern of the last two years, which has resulted in the continuing dramatic decline in vaquita numbers.  Direct comparisons of the number of nets removed by Sea Shepherd efforts in different years are not valid because the nature of the effort has been evolving (details in this Report by CIRVA members who visited the Upper Gulf earlier this year).  The searching efficiency of the net removal vessels has improved due to the use of sonar, while the illegal fishermen have become better at avoiding net detection and removal by spotting search activities and setting their nets at times and in places where they are less likely to be discovered.  However, the data in the table and figure clearly indicate that illegal fishing persists.  So far, there is no indication that enhanced enforcement is being effective.

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