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 http://www.seashepherd.org/news-and-media/2015/04/22/miracle-on-the-water-1684.

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 [http://www.seaturtle.org/tracking/?project_id=1084].

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 http://www.int-res.com/articles/feature/n018p193.pdf).

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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Bangladesh Declares a New Marine Protected Area For Dolphins, Whales, Sharks, and Sea Turtles

On 27 October, 2014, the Government of Bangladesh signed into law the country’s first Marine Protected Area, the ‘Swatch of No Ground’ (SoNG), designed to safeguard whales, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, and other oceanic species.  The SoNG MPA spans 1,738 km2 including waters at the head of the submarine canyon from which it gets its name as well as coastal waters offshore of the world’s largest mangrove forest: the Sundarbans.

The Bangladesh Cetacean Diversity Project has worked with the Government of Bangladesh since 2004 to ensure the long-term protection of cetaceans through collaboration with local communities. During the course of this work, large numbers of Irrawaddy dolphins, finless porpoises, Pacific humpback dolphins, Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins, pan-tropical spotted dolphins, and spinner dolphins were observed, as well as what may prove to be a resident population of Bryde’s whales.

It is hoped that the creation of the SoNG MPA—which borders the territorial waters of India—will promote discussions on a trans-boundary protected area, as neighbouring waters likely contain similar species richness and the cetaceans on both sides of the border face the same threats such as entanglement in fishing gear and climate change.


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Satellite tagging southern right whales off Patagonia to help understand the reasons for recent die-offs

For the first time, scientists working in the waters of Patagonia are using satellite tags to track southern right whales from their breeding and calving grounds in the sheltered bays of Península Valdés, Argentina, to unknown feeding grounds in the western South Atlantic. It is hoped that this will provide clues to the cause of one of the largest die-offs of large whales ever recorded.

Southern right whales have rebounded from centuries of commercial whaling; populations have grown by as much as seven percent annually since 1970. Around one third of all southern hemisphere right whales alive today use the protected bays of Península Valdés as calving and nursing habitat between the months of June and December. However, at least 672 southern right whales have died at Península Valdés in the last ten years, the vast majority young calves. A number of explanations have been proposed: nutritional stress due to krill depletion, bacterial biotoxins in nursery waters, infectious disease and gull harassment. So far there has not been enough evidence to confirm that one or a combination of these factors is to blame. In the process of trying to understand the causes of the die-off, scientists have successfully attached satellite transmitters to five whales: three young, solitary males and two adult females with calves. In addition to transmitting geographical positions, two of the tags are equipped to monitor dive profiles and the temperature of the whales’ preferred habitat. All of this information will be used to help determine the location and condition of feeding grounds as well as the migratory routes taken to reach them.

It has been several weeks since the tags were attached and transmissions began. The three young males have left the nursery waters of Península Valdés. They have covered the wide ocean shelf, reached the shelf break over 200 miles offshore, and are now heading in a south-easterly direction, crossing deep, open-ocean water towards Antarctica. The adult females remain close to the Argentina coast, apparently waiting until their calves are strong enough to complete the long migration (see map of recorded movements).

The tags are expected to stay attached to the whales for a month or possibly two. It’s hoped that by the time they stop transmitting, all five of the whales will have safely reached their summer feeding grounds, and scientists will have more pieces of this complex puzzle.

The organisations involved in the tagging programme are the Wildlife Conservation Society, the Aqualie Institute (Brazil) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA, USA) in collaboration with Fundacion Patagonia Natural (Argentina), Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas (Argentina), Ocean Alliance (USA), and the University of California, Davis (USA).


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Cetaceans and western Indian Ocean tuna fisheries

Tropical tuna fisheries have expanded enormously in recent decades. Increased interactions with cetaceans are inevitable, and those in the western and central Indian Ocean are no exception. A new report from the region finds that there has been a widespread failure to monitor and manage cetacean interactions and bycatch in Indian Ocean tuna fisheries, and to develop and implement mitigation measures. The enormous, and still growing, gillnet capacity in the region should be of particular concern. The major gillnet fishing fleets are from the countries bordering the Arabian Sea: Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Iran, Oman and Yemen. It is estimated that at least 60,000 small cetaceans are taken annually by tuna gillnetters in this region. Illegal high-seas gillnetting is common. Purse seiners (mainly from France and Spain) regularly set on baleen whales (probably Bryde’s whale, Balaenoptera brydei); mortality rates are not known, but are probably in the 10s per year. Purse seiners report that tuna do not associate with dolphins in this region, but that is not true. Large yellowfin tuna do regularly associate with both pantropical spotted dolphins (Stenella attenuata) and spinner dolphins (Stenella longirostris) as well as with long-beaked common dolphins (Delphinus capensis). This discrepancy does not necessarily mean that purse seiners set on dolphins, but it does open it to question. There are also issues with the longline fisheries, where depredation (by both sharks and cetaceans) is a serious problem for some fishermen. There is a suggestion that some longline fishermen may be shooting cetaceans, especially false killer whales (Pseudorca crassidens).

The full report is available at: http://www.ipnlf.org/


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Irrawaddy dolphins (Pesut) in Indonesia’s Mahakam River

At the chairman’s request, CSG member Danielle Kreb provided the following summary.

A Critically Endangered pesut surfaces in the Mahakam River, East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo Credit: Danielle Kreb

One of the three Critically Endangered freshwater populations of Irrawaddy dolphins, Orcaella brevirostris, inhabits the Mahakam River, East Kalimantan, Indonesia. Analysis of tissues samples from 8 individuals indicated that this population has two unique genetic haplotypes compared to the coastal Irrawaddy dolphins in Northeast Kalimantan (Malinau), Thailand and Philippines. All sightings of pesut (as the dolphins are called locally) in the main Mahakam River during surveys between 1997-2012 were in the area between Muara Kaman (about 180 km from the river mouth) and the village of Tering (about 420 km from the mouth). Based on interviews, the distribution area could extend outside this area at some times of the year, both downstream (up to 90 km from the mouth) and upstream, where however it would be limited by the rapids upstream of Long Bagun (600 km from the mouth).  Pesut have also been found in the tributaries in the middle Mahakam, i.e. Kedang Rantau, Kedang Kepala, Belayan, Kedang Pahu, Pela, Semayang and Melintang Lakes, and in-between fast-flowing streams at about 20 and 100 km upstream of the Ratah River, which empties into the Mahakam at least 500km from the sea.

Based on Petersen mark–recapture analysis, the total population of pesut was estimated at 89 in 2005 (Cl 70-128; CV=0,18), 90 (Cl 68-145; CV= 0,19) in 2007, 91 (Cl 76-116; CV=0,13) in 2010 and 92 (CL 73-131; CV=0,15) in 2012, indicating no marked increase or decrease over this period. A survey to obtain a new abundance estimate is planned for later this year.

Large coal barges ply the water of the Mahakam threatening the Irrawaddy dolphins. Photo Credit: Danielle Kreb

The mean number of detected dead dolphins per year between 1995-2013 is 4 (ca 4% of total population); total recorded deaths in 19 years: 79. Most deaths have been caused by gillnet entanglement (66% of 71 deaths with known cause) followed by vessel strike (10%).

Other threats include noise from high-speed boats and oceanic coal-carrier ships passing through core habitat, chemical pollution from coal-mining waste cleaning and large-scale mono-culture plantations (especially oil palm) and prey depletion as a result of unsustainable fishing (e.g. electro-fishing, poison and trawl). Displacement of dolphins from core areas has been caused by container barges moving through narrow tributaries, sedimentation of lake habitat and conversion of fish spawning areas into palm oil plantations. One example is the ‘Muara Pahu – Penyinggahan sub-districts area’ which had the highest density of dolphins before 2007 and was designated as a dolphin reserve in 2009. Dolphins have been observed less and less often by local residents and during four extensive surveys in 2010 and 2012, no dolphins were

Human habitation along the Mahakam River. Photo Credit: Danielle Kreb

encountered there or in areas upstream of Muara Pahu, except for one isolated group that has resided in the Ratah River for the last 14 years.

Currently, conservation activities focus on gaining local governmental and community support to protect important dolphin habitat through multi-stakeholder workshops and preparing a management plan with tasks allocated to relevant organizations in each area. A major goal is to mitigate (or preferably eliminate) unsustainable fishing techniques, e.g. by introducing more sustainable fishing techniques, law enforcement, restoring and maintaining fish spawning areas and reducing pollution (chemical waste and boat noise). On a positive note, the government in the one district where dolphins still occur in good numbers (Pela/ Semayang –Muara Kaman area) is seriously considering a proposal to protect a50,000 ha area. All potentially affected villages participated in design of the proposed protected area and a final decision by the government is expected in early December.


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