Stronger protection needed to prevent imminent extinction of Mexican porpoise vaquita, new survey finds

Vaquita, Chris Johnson, 2008

Vaquita, Chris Johnson, 2008

Only about 60 vaquitas remain in the Gulf of California, according to a report presented this week to Mexico’s Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources and the governor of Baja California. This represents a decline of more than 92% since 1997. Unless Mexico extends the gillnet ban and enhances its strong commitment to combat illegal fishing, this small and critically endangered porpoise will be driven to extinction within five years, according to an international team of scientists established by the government of Mexico (the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, CIRVA) who met this week in Ensenada, B.C., Mexico.

Vaquita population and abundance

Vaquita population and abundance

A range-wide survey late last year confirmed earlier results from acoustic monitoring showing a catastrophic decline of vaquitas amid a resurgence of illegal gillnetting for an endangered fish, the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi).  Swim bladders from these fish enter the illegal wildlife trade in China, selling for thousands of dollars per kilo.

CIRVA warns that accidental drowning in gillnets is rapidly driving the vaquita (Phocoena sinus) toward extinction. Previous research showed that the vaquita had declined from around 570 in 1997 to 250 in 2008. The vaquita is the most endangered marine mammal, and indeed one of the most endangered mammals, in the world.

“We are watching this precious native species disappear before our eyes,” said Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, chair of CIRVA and co-chief scientist of the survey. “Our latest survey confirms the catastrophic decline before the emergency gillnet ban. This gillnet ban and strong enforcement must continue if we are to have any hope of saving the vaquita.”

CIRVA praised the unprecedented conservation actions already taken to stop the impact of both illegal totoaba fishing and legal gillnetting by the government of Mexico.  The President imposed an emergency two-year ban on gillnets throughout the range of the vaquita in the northern Gulf of California beginning in May 2015. The Mexican Navy oversees enforcement and local fishing communities are receiving millions of dollars of compensation for lost income. However, CIRVA stresses that the ban must become permanent if the species is to survive and recover.

Gillnet exclusion area_CIRVA 5

Gillnet exclusion area_CIRVA 5

Rafael Pacchiano, Mexico’s Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources, stated that federal authorities are working in a coordinated and committed manner to prevent illegal fishing of totoaba in the area that is safeguarded for vaquitas. They are also combating the illegal trafficking of protected marine species and the presence of organized criminal groups related to this activity.

“Surveillance operations were intensified, especially at night, by incorporating equipment and personnel from the Agency of Environmental Protection (PROFEPA), the Navy of Mexico, the Federal Police and the Department of Fisheries, allowing greater land and maritime surveillance during the curvina fishing season in April,” Secretary Pacchiano said.

Despite the ban, three dead vaquitas were found in March, all having died from entanglement in gillnets probably set for totoaba. Forty-two illegal nets were removed over the past four months by the enforcement team of the Navy and Sea Shepherd’s Operation Milagro.  “The lure of big money for totoaba swim bladders killed at least three more vaquitas, individuals sorely needed to prevent the species’ slide toward extinction,” said Frances Gulland of the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, who performed necropsies on two of the carcasses.

If the current ‘emergency’ gillnet ban is made permanent and, importantly, more effectively enforced, the vaquita may recover. Protection of two other Mexican marine mammal species that were at very low levels has led to recovery. “While there is good reason to expect that vaquitas could recover if deaths in gillnets were stopped.” says Barbara Taylor, co-chief scientist of the survey and a member of the recovery team, “if gillnetting is allowed to resume in the northern Gulf, the vaquita may be extinct by 2022.” Given the dire situation, CIRVA recognizes that every option must be investigated and a plan to examine the feasibility of live capture and a temporary safe haven is in place – but there is no guarantee of success. CIRVA emphasizes that this is not an alternative to a permanent enforced ban on the gillnets that kill vaquitas.

Since vaquitas are accidental casualties of gillnetting, fishing methods and markets must change to protect them. Gillnets also kill hundreds of thousands of porpoises, whales, dolphins and seals worldwide every year.  “If Mexico managed to solve this problem of vaquita mortality in gillnets, it would set an example for other nations, showing that fishermen can fish sustainably and co-exist with porpoises, dolphins, and other sea mammals,” says Taylor.

photo credit Paula A Olson (2008)

photo credit Paula A Olson (2008)

Vaquita in the northern gulf of California. Photo credit Tom Jefferson (2008)

Vaquita in the northern gulf of California. Photo credit Tom Jefferson (2008)



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Vaquita Update: Three documented deaths in one month, not good

Three dead vaquitas were discovered and examined in the northern Gulf of California (Mexico) in March 2016: (1) a floating carcass found by researchers from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in the Vaquita Refuge area on 4 March, (2) a carcass reported by phone to authorities, on the beach north of San Felipe on 13 March and (3) another floating carcass reported to and recovered by the Sea Shepherd team on 24 March. Necropsies were performed on 24-25 March by Frances Gulland (The Marine Mammal Center and US Marine Mammal Commission) and Kerri Danil (Southwest Fisheries Science Centre, NOAA/Fisheries) with support from Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho (Instituto Nacional de Ecología y Cambio Climático). The necropsy reports are available here. In all three cases the cause of death was described as “trauma, entanglement.” Further analyses for biotoxins are being carried out. The nets involved were presumably set illegally to catch totoaba, the large croakers (which like the vaquita are red-listed as Critically Endangered) whose swim bladders are used in a lucrative, illegal Chinese market. The totoaba fishery has surged in recent years and is helping to drive the vaquita rapidly toward extinction. Currently all gillnets are banned in vaquita habitat, but the ban is in effect for only one more year. It is essential and urgent to extend the ban and strengthen enforcement.


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December 2015 Vaquita Update

Members of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita ​​(​CIRVA​)​ attending the Society for Marine Mammalogy​’s​ Biennial Conference in San Francisco took ​the opportunity​ to me​e​t briefly on ​16 December 2015. ​It was largely an informational meeting where participants received brief updates on several issues, including preliminary results of the 2015 abundance survey, the acoustic monitoring program, enforcement, and status of development and testing of alternative fishing gear. CIRVA concluded that past and current efforts to test alternative finfish gear have been inadequate, and recommended that the Government of Mexico invest more resources in gear trials and elicit the involvement of international expertise in the design and implementation of such trials. A comprehensive, transparent, full-scale gear testing program for finfish must be fully supported and implemented as soon as possible to facilitate the transition to alternative finfish gear. The final report of this meeting, called CIRVA Express, is available in English and Spanish here.

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Progress achieved on natural ex situ conservation of the Yangtze finless porpoise

Provided by Professor Wang Ding on 8 December 2015

While ex situ conservation has been seen as an important strategy for endangered terrestrial animals, it is still controversial for cetaceans. The Critically Endangered Yangtze finless porpoise (Neophocaena asiaeorientalis asiaeorientalis) is the only freshwater porpoise population in the world; it is restricted to the middle and lower reaches of China’s Yangtze River including two adjoining lakes. Due to habitat degradation and mortality from ship strikes and bycatch, the natural population of the subspecies has dramatically declined over the past several decades. According to the latest range-wide survey conducted in 2012, there were only approximately 1000 individuals left and the annual decline rate has been accelerating over the past decade.

In 1992, the Tian-E-Zhou Oxbow, an old natural channel in the middle reaches of the Yangtze, was chosen by the Chinese Government as a natural ex situ protection area for finless porpoises (as proposed by my Cetacean Research Group at the Institute of Hydrobiology, Chinese Academy of Sciences). Since this oxbow used to be connected to the river, its environment and ecological conditions are similar to those of the mainstem. Feasibility studies of the first introduced porpoises confirmed that they can not only survive but also reproduce successfully in the reserve. A census completed on 26th November 2015 revealed that the population had increased rapidly over the last five years. The population is now over 60, compared to only 25 in 2010. Excluding the eight animals introduced in 2014 and 2015, this population has shown a net growth of 108% with 27 new individuals over the past 5 years. Moreover, the population’s fecundity is considered high compared to the wild population. Of the 18 mature females at the Tian-E-Zhou oxbow, nine are pregnant (as diagnosed by ultrasound imaging) and 11 are lactating. Interestingly, of the 11 lactating females, four individuals are also pregnant. There are 17 juveniles younger than two years old, and of these, 11 were identified as newborns in 2015.

This natural ex situ population is regarded as an established Seed Population which we aim to release back into the subspecies’ natural habitat in the future when the Yangtze’s ecological conditions have improved and are more suitable for population recovery. According to previous work by our team, the capacity of the Tian-E-Zhou Oxbow to support finless porpoises, which is limited mainly by the fish resources in the oxbow, is 80 to 100 individuals. We estimate that the population could reach the local carrying capacity as early as 2018 if it keeps growing at the current rate. After 2018, some animals will have to be moved out periodically to regulate the oxbow population. In fact, four animals including 2 males and 2 females were already selected during the 2015 census to support a new natural ex situ population in He-Wang-Miao Oxbow, which is even bigger than the Tian-E-Zhou Oxbow with an estimated capacity for the finless porpoises of over 120 individuals. Our team believes that more ex situ populations will provide a firm basis for the Yangtze finless porpoise conservation project, and ultimately improve our chances to save this Critically Endangered freshwater subspecies.

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Update on Vaquita Survey

The following news article provides an update on the vaquita survey which just ended:

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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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