This past week I was invited to attend the seventh annual meeting of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) which took place in Ensenada, Mexico. The CIRVA team consists of a panel of biologists from around the world with extensive experience in marine mammal research and conservation and a dedication to the survival of the vaquita porpoise. The meeting was facilitated by Committee Chairman Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, who deliberated with the committee for days and processed the information acquired during the first year of the gillnet ban. The purpose of this meeting was to make recommendations within the committee and then convey these recommendations to the Mexican government in hopes that they will be implemented. The burning question on everyone’s mind however was: how many vaquita are remaining?
The new vaquita population estimate was calculated from all the data obtained from the acoustic monitoring program as well as the visual survey conducted on the RV/Ocean Starr during the fall of 2015. This information was then analyzed to give an estimate of the number of vaquita remaining on the planet. Many factors were included in calculating the number of individuals such as areas that were not surveyed, areas where vaquita were seen versus not seen, and illegal fishing.
There were a wide mix of emotions in the room where the vaquitas’ fate was discussed. For the most part, the dialogue between the scientists was profound with occasional exhales of hopeful sighs and friendly laughter. Most of the members of CIRVA have been working together for many years, and have become life long friends. The vaquita has unified this group of extremely talented and intelligent individuals for a common cause. I was able to observe that first day where many of them saw each other for the first time since the last CIRVA meeting which occurred when we first began production of our film Souls of the Vermilion Sea in summer of 2015. It was like watching a family reunion, with lots of hugging and giddy laughter. It was wonderful to see people displaying such genuine emotion and sharing in this monumental effort to save the vaquita from extinction. I can honestly say, that with people like this, I am sure that the world is a better place and headed in a more positive direction. There is no better voice than unity for the vaquita.
There were some new additions to the meeting this year, as there are many moving parts involved in the vaquita’s survival. Captain Oona Layolle from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society contributed a wealth of information from their Operation Milagro efforts in assisting the Mexican Navy with patrols of the Upper Gulf as well as the removal of illegal fishing nets. It was extremely interesting to the members of CIRVA and myself to learn about the locations of the illegal gillnets that were retrieved by Sea Shepherd boats. The illegal gillnet data combined with the acoustic monitoring and boat survey data painted a vivid visual of where illegal fishing is occurring and where vaquita are located.
Alex Olivera from the Center of Biological Diversity and Cristian Linan Rivera of Noroeste Sustentable also contributed some eye opening information, some of which was quite unsettling to the CIRVA team. Alex and Cristian specifically addressed irregularities in the fishermen compensation program and the rampant corruption within the Mexican government. As various attendees from the Mexican government and NGO’s sat in on the meeting over the week discussions fluctuated with intensity. Several individuals addressed specific incidences of corruption occurring within the government and frustrations could be felt from across the room. You feel helpless knowing that corruption is the biggest hindrance to any positive change, especially concerning the future of the vaquita.
On the final day of the meeting, the Environmental Minister of Mexico, Raphael Pacchiano Alaman, the Governor of Northern Baja California, Francisco Vega de Lamadrid, as well as officials from the Navy, PROFEPA, and CONEPESCA attended and the CIRVA meeting and results were presented to them. This is the first time in history that the Environmental Minister has visited a CIRVA meeting, which displays the urgency of this issue. Each member of CIRVA presented their findings to the minister and the governor as well as recommendations as to what additional effort needs to be done to help save the vaquita. When it came time for Dr. Barbara Taylor from the Southwest Fisheries Science Center/NOAA to speak all attention was on her as she delivered the news that about 60 vaquita are remaining on the planet. When you hear a number like this concerning such a unique species, it plays really heavy on the heart. All species matter and we can all do something to protect them.
The massive effort that the Mexican government has done is a step in the right direction, but so much more needs to be done. The population estimate of 60 individuals does not take into account the three vaquita deaths that were discovered this spring. 3 dead vaquitas were discovered in March of 2016, and it is likely that there were additional mortalities that simply were not found or reported. This means that there are almost certainly significantly fewer than 60 vaquitas remaining. According to the necropsy report, one of the three dead vaquita was a female which means one less breeder.
There is one year remaining before the gillnet ban expires and a decision needs to be made as to wether the ban is extended into perpetuity. During the final year of the ban, there will be another season of illegal fishing for totoaba. As long as there is a demand for totoaba bladders in China and continued corruption in Mexico the vaquita’s extinction crisis will continue to instensify. Even if Mexico responds to all of CIRVA’s recommendations it is uncertain if this will be enough. This fight also needs to be brought to China’s doorstep. An international effort is the only way that we can save the vaquita.
-Sean Bogle, Director of Souls of the Vermilion Sea
Tags: Barbara Taylor, CIRVA, ensenada, Lorenzo rojas-bracho, Mexico, Mexico conservation, Mexico environment, Mexico minister of the environment, Rafael Pacchiano Alamán, semarnat, vaquita conservation, vaquita recovery, vaquita research