Vaquita peril persists with on-going illegal totoaba fishing – February 2018 Update

The net removal effort, started by Sea Shepherd’s Operation Milagro in collaboration with the Mexican Navy in 2015, is building to become the biggest yet in the totoaba season currently under way. The initial Sea Shepherd/Navy effort focused on observing pangas illegally setting nets at night and on removing those nets. The effort was expanded in 2016 to systematically remove both active and inactive nets throughout the vaquita’s primary distribution.  This expansion in effort has been led by the Department of the Environment (SEMARNAT) together with Sea Shepherd, the Mexican Navy and Army, PEMEX, WWF-Mexico, Museo de la Ballena, Parley, 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.

From December, 2016, through February, 2018, SSCS has retrieved 394 nets, over 270 of which have been active totoaba nets. A total of 61 totoaba nets were retrieved in February 2018. This takes the total number of active nets removed by Sea Shepherd thus far in 2018 to 96. Over 50 tons of net were donated to Parley for recycling (further details can be found in the CIRVA 10 Report).With fewer than 30 vaquitas remaining and the idea of rescuing some by capturing them and placing them in human care not considered viable, conservation action is now focussed on enforcement and net removal. The current net removal effort during the totoaba spawning season will last until May. Because this effort is critical to saving the vaquita, progress will be updated on this website monthly.

Despite the enhanced net removal efforts and enforcement focus on areas of overlap between vaquita distribution and illegal fishing, the removal of active totoaba nets is apparently following the pattern of the last two years, which has resulted in the dramatic decline in vaquitas. To give the best idea of the relative risk of entanglement for vaquitas, only efforts by Sea Shepherd in the past 2 years are shown. Even then direct comparison of the numbers of nets removed by Sea Shepherd efforts in February 2017 and 2018 is not a perfect indicator of the risk presented to vaquitas because net removal has become more efficient both due to experience and increased efficiency resulting from the addition of using side-scan sonar to locate nets. However, the data in the table and figure below clearly indicate that illegal fishing persists and follows the earlier pattern of increasing as the totoaba spawning season progresses. So far, there is no indication that enhanced enforcement is being effective.

The map shows active nets removed from December 2017-February 2018. The yellow dots are active totoaba nets removed prior to February and the black dots those removed during February only. The black line denotes the vaquita refuge and the orange line the enhanced enforcement area.

The bar graph shows the number of totoaba nets removed by Sea Shepherd during totoaba spawning season for the Milagro III operation (blue) and through February for Milagro IV (orange).

Source: Siegenthaler, N. 2018. Sea Shepherd Conservation Society Internal Reports

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Insights into Critically Endangered Mekong Dolphin Genetics and What This Means for Conservation

New research has shed light on the genetics of critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong River. The results are interesting, concerning, hopeful, and a call to action. The study brought together samples collected between 2000 and 2009 and the work of a group of researchers, to look at the genetic diversity, phylogeny, and demographic history of the Mekong dolphin population, and consider what this means for conservation.

The genetic diversity of the population is low, though the results weren’t clear whether this was due to (i) recent genetic collapse from the currently small population size or (ii) the low diversity inherited from the Irrawaddy dolphins that first moved into the Mekong River long ago (with such a long life-span, dolphins evolve slowly). However the results were clear that Mekong dolphins are very distinct from other Irrawaddy dolphins, even those in nearby coastal areas in Cambodia. It’s possible that the population represents a sub-species, though more evidence is needed to clarify this.

Fig 1 – Phylogenetic relationships of the genus Orcaella based on 384bp of the hyper-variable region I of mitochondrial DNA. Numbers indicate Bayesian posterior probability values for each clade.

So what does this mean for conservation of dolphins in the Mekong? Preserving the existing genetic diversity is a high priority, and the best way to do this is by protection of the existing wild population. Ongoing work in the field to protect them through management of gillnet fishing in dolphin habitats and parallel awareness raising and livelihood diversification work with local communities is the cornerstone. These efforts need to be combined with continuing policy support to protect remaining dolphin habitat from developments like proposed mainstream hydropower dams.

See our Special Projects page for more information on the Critically Endangered population of Irrawaddy dolphins in the Mekong River.

The full article:

Krützen, M, Beasley I, Ackermann, CY, Lieckfeldt, D, Ludwig, A, Ryan GE, Bejder, L, Parra, GJ, Wolfensberger, R, & Spencer, PBS (2018). Demographic collapse and low genetic diversity of the Irrawaddy dolphin population inhabiting the Mekong River. PLoS ONE 13(1): e0189200

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Cooperative Net Removal Efforts Increase to Save Vaquitas

The net removal effort, started by Sea Shepherd’s Operation Milagro in collaboration with the Mexican Navy in 2015, is building to become the biggest yet in the totoaba season currently under way. The initial Sea Shepherd/Navy effort focused on observing pangas illegally setting nets at night and on removing those nets. The effort was expanded in 2016 to systematically remove both active and inactive nets throughout the vaquita’s primary distribution. This expansion in effort has been led by the Department of the Environment (SEMARNAT) together with Sea Shepherd, the Mexican Navy and Army, PEMEX, WWF-Mexico, Museo de la Ballena, Parley, 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.

From December 2016 through December 2017, 518 nets were retrieved, most of them active totoaba nets. Over 50 tons of net were donated to Parley for recycling (further details can be found in the CIRVA 10 Report).

With fewer than 30 vaquitas remaining and the idea of rescuing some by capturing them and placing them in human care 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 until May. Because the net removal effort is critical to saving the vaquita, progress will be updated on this website monthly.

The map on the left shows active nets removed between October 2017 and January 2018. The graph on the right shows the number of totoaba nets removed by Sea Shepherd last year (blue) and this year (orange).

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