New Presidential Commission to Save Vaquita Takes First Steps

The first meetings of the Comisión Asesora de la Presidencia de México para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (Advisory Commission of the Presidency of Mexico for the Recovery of the Vaquita) were held in Mexico City in February and March of this year, and significant actions are under way.  Ing. Juan José Guerra Abud, Secretario de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales, formed the 17-member Commission to expedite actions to save Mexico’s porpoise.  The Secretary brought together the heads of government departments, the chairs of Congressional natural resource committees, representatives of the states of Sonora and Baja California, representatives of fishery unions, the Mexican Navy, non-governmental organizations and private foundations, and scientists to step up action on meeting what he describes as Mexico’s moral obligation to save the species.

At its first meeting, the Commission identified three actions for immediate implementation: (1) publication of the NOM (official standard) that will make the use of small-type trawls instead of gillnets mandatory in the shrimp fishery; (2) much more effective enforcement of existing regulations; and (3) commitment of financial resources to compensate fishermen for lost income as a result of vaquita protection measures.  The NOM was published for public comment on schedule in February, and this sets the stage for large-scale gear changes before next fall’s shrimp season.  A small working group was established to develop the economic plan immediately.

Formation of the Commission was timely given recent indications that protection efforts to date have been insufficient to stop the vaquita population’s decline – there are now estimated to be fewer than 200 individuals. The International Recovery Team (CIRVA) noted at its last meeting (February 2012) that although Mexico has made real progress towards saving the species, the Vaquita Refuge has only slowed, and not stopped or reversed, the decline. Not only is the Refuge too small, but enforcement of a partial ban of gillnets has proven infeasible. The good news, however, is that a breakthrough has been made in the development of alternative fishing gear that should not kill vaquitas but will allow shrimp fishing to continue.

Small trawls that can be pulled from the artisanal fishing boats (pangas) have been tested by Mexico’s fisheries agency. These trawls are equipped with turtle and fish excluder devices and use a ‘tickler’ chain to reduce bottom-fish bycatch. The trawls are effective for catching shrimp and are being tested for catching commercial finfish. Conversion will require training and gear replacement and it is anticipated that fishermen will need compensation to maintain their income.  At the second meeting a proposal to further test the new gear involving more fishermen in August 2013 was adopted.

The Minister also decided on a new vaquita abundance estimation survey to be conducted as soon as possible.  This survey will repeat the design of the survey in 2008 and could be conducted as early as fall 2013.

Progress will be closely monitored by numerous groups, some of which (e.g. IUCN, Society for Conservation Biology, and Society for Marine Mammalogy) have written letters to commend Mexico for actions taken and to plead for further quick and critical actions. Representatives of the CSG and SMM who are on the new Commission are optimistic that Mexico’s new Administration is serious and prepared to commit the necessary resources for timely and appropriate efforts to prevent the vaquita’s extinction. Stay tuned.

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