The International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita has released the official report from their meeting that took place November 29-30th, 2016 in La Jolla, California.  The news is not good – only about 30 vaquitas remain in the upper Gulf of California, a 50% decline from last year’s population estimate of 60 individuals.

Read the full report here:  CIRVA 8 Report Final

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This new population estimate is derived from the analysis of data from the 2016 Acoustic Monitoring Program – a long running project that uses special hydrophones capable of detecting the sonar clicks that the vaquita uses for echolocation.  The data from this remote acoustic monitoring program was analyzed and compared to the visual survey data collected in the fall of 2015 to come up with this dramatic decline in abundance for the population.

The report highlights the substantial impact that illegal fishing with gillnets is continuing to have on the vaquita population, and emphasizes recent efforts to remove abandoned fishing gear from vaquita habitat.  The report states that, “in October and November 2016, 105 pieces of illegal, abandoned or derelict fishing gear were discovered and 85 of these were removed.”

While it’s certainly good to hear that there are efforts underway to remove abandoned illegal gillnets, it’s also clear that these efforts have not been substantial enough to have any measurable impact on the vaquita’s decline.  Because of this fact, in addition to calls for increased enforcement and prosecution of illegal fishing activities, CIRVA is now recommending that, “some vaquitas should be placed in a temporary sanctuary”.

This is what sets this new CIRVA report apart from all seven previous reports that the committee has released.  Although the concept of captive breeding has been discussed for many years at these meetings, it has always been considered a last resort.  Now, with the population at just 30 individuals as we enter the most intensive period of illegal totoaba fishing (March and April), we have reached the most desperate period of this struggle to save the vaquita from extinction.  With this report, CIRVA recognizes that without an attempt to bring vaquitas into a captive setting or sanctuary, the species will almost certainly go extinct in the very near future.

Notably missing from the report are the actual words, “captive breeding”.  It is emphasized that the immediate goal of this effort will be to place “some vaquitas into a temporary sanctuary, with the eventual goal of returning these animals to a gillnet-free environment.”  Of course if this effort is successful, and multiple vaquitas are transferred to a captive environment, the hope is that these animals will breed.  But there is a clear reluctance to refer to this effort as a captive breeding program – likely because of the controversy inherent in captive breeding programs for marine mammals.

This report confirms our worst suspicions about the rate of illegal totoaba fishing since Mexico’s gillnet ban went into effect in the spring of 2015.  After spending time in San Felipe and the surrounding area in March and April of 2016 – during the height of the illegal totoaba fishing season – we speculated that the gillnet ban was actually having a net negative impact on the vaquita.  This speculation was based on numerous conversations with local fisherman who explained that more people were being pushed into participating in the illegal totoaba fishery because the fisheries for shrimp and other fin fish were no longer economically viable post-gillnet-ban.

The average annual rate of decline for the vaquita population from 2011-2015 was 34% – this represents the rate of decline before all gillnets were banned throughout the vaquita’s range (note that totoaba fishing has been illegal since 1975).  Now, with the release of this report, we know that the rate of annual decline shot up to 50% this past year – the first full year that the gillnet ban was in effect.

So clearly a gillnet ban alone is not going to save the species, and this is why CIRVA has finally taken the step to recommend live-trapping vaquita and placing them in some form of temporary captive sanctuary.  Of course while this may save the species from immediate extinction, these animals will never be able to safely return to their native habitat until all gillnets are removed from the upper Gulf – and a realistic path towards achieving this goal remains difficult to envision.

Alternative fishing methods that are both sustainable and economically viable must be developed for this goal to be achieved, and there is a strong focus on this topic in the CIRVA report.  Unfortunately, most of these alternative fishing methods still require additional development to meet these standards and become viable alternatives to the gillnet.  The slow progress of these efforts are clearly a point of frustration for members of the committee, but there is a hope that placing vaquita in a captive setting with buy enough time for these alternative fishing methods to be fully developed and implemented.

The situation facing the vaquita is more dire now than ever before.  Our promise to you is that we will not give up in our efforts to document this noble struggle to save the vaquita until the last animal has perished.

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