Our podcast conversation with Tom Jefferson, the director of Viva Vaquita:



San Felipe, Mexico

San Felipe, Mexico

It has been 18 months since we began the production of our film Souls of the Vermilion Sea documenting the struggle to save the vaquita porpoise from extinction. When we first decided to make a film about the vaquita, we never thought that this story would be nearly as complex and urgent as it has now become.  Our goal was to help raise awareness about a largely unknown species and to also collaborate with organizations to strengthen their efforts in saving this unique animal. In addition to outreach and collaborations, we hope that this story may serve as a historical lesson that resonates with all species on this planet. If we are able to present a testimony to the massive human effort that it takes to adjust the archaic habits that have negatively impacted the vaquita, then maybe we can forge a path forward for future endangered species conservation efforts. We envision future civilizations looking back at this film and others like it and learning from our struggle to be more conscience of the natural world.

While working on this film project, we have imbedded ourselves in this issue concerning the survival of the vaquita.  Before we began production, we conducted extensive research of every available scientific publication and news article that we could find.  We wanted to learn what the scientists working directly in vaquita research were discovering as well how much of these findings were delivered to the general public. To our surprise we found that the vast majority of this information was not in the mainstream media and the information that was available presented only a tiny fraction of the full story. One of our primary goals with this film project became to fill in these enormous gaps by talking directly with the biologists and the communities that are being affected by this issue.

Pangas and gillnets.

Pangas and gillnets

2016 is now coming to an end, and although the vaquita has gotten more mainstream media coverage in this year than ever before, there remains a massive information gap.  There have been many developments since a moratorium on gillnet and fishing activities was implemented in May of 2015, including a milestone vaquita survey effort that took place in the fall of 2015, as well as an increase in the intensity of the illegal fishery for the giant croaker fish known as the totoaba. It is important to highlight how interconnected the fate of the vaquita is with the totoaba,  a species that is also listed on the International Union for Conservation (IUCN) Red List as endangered.  The totoaba, once harvested for sustenance, is now being collected not for its meat, but for its swim bladder. The demand for the totoaba’s swim bladder stems from parts of China and Southeast Asia where these large swim bladders are valued not only for their supposed medicinal qualities, but also as an investment and financial commodity.

Sea Shepherd and Navy ships.

Sea Shepherd and Navy ships.

The period at which totoaba migrate up and around the northern Gulf of California can be as early as October and persist into June.  A totoaba migration is similar to salmon in that they swim up into the shallow water to spawn, making them easy targets for fishermen.  This means that illegal fishing potentially occurs for 5-6 months. We happened to be in the Upper Gulf of California several times during the illegal fishing period and were able to witness possibly the largest Mexican military conservation operation the world has ever seen. The Mexican Navy and Army, with support from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society discovered, chased, and arrested illegal fishermen as well as removed illegal gillnets to prevent any further destruction. Unfortunately it was not enough, this illegal fishing period was the worst ever recorded in recent times.  During this effort, a wide variety of other marine mammal mortalities took place as gillnets do not discriminate species. Additionally, there were two homicide cases that resulted in a shoot-out between a fishermen and a police officer demanding more bribe money in which both individuals were killed. Another incident involved two brothers that got into a dispute over totoaba swim bladder money and resulted in one shooting and killing the other.  Please keep in mind that this is all over a swim bladder.

In June 2016 the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) announced the results from the fall 2015 vaquita survey effort, and revealed to the world that only about 60 vaquitas remained on the planet.  This population was based on the results of the 2 month survey conducted by SEMARNAT and NOAA as well as acoustic monitoring program efforts in 2015.  The reality of this situation is that the vaquita population was lower by the time the CIRVA report was released.  Illegal fishing was rampant during the 4-5 months prior to the CIRVA report and 3 dead vaquita were discovered during this time. Now something to keep in mind is that it is likely that there were more vaquita deaths entangled in derelict gillnets and deliberately hidden to avoid repercussions.

Once we learned of the 3 deceased vaquita we felt a state of urgency more than ever and stepped up our efforts dramatically.  We released our first short video associated with this film project in conjunction with the announcement of the survey results.  Despite the positive attention that this first short video recieved, we knew we had to release something more comprehensive.  We felt a pressing need to present the perspective of the fisherman living in the three small communities that are most directly affected by this issue.  We made a decision at that point to produce a 30 minute version of the film, that we could screen in these small fishing communities before the most intense period of illegal totoaba fishing began in the spring of 2017.

Islas Del Golfo SC De RL de CV fishing cooperative

Islas Del Golfo SC De RL de CV fishing cooperative

Meanwhile our first short film, titled Searching for the Vaquita was translated into English, Spanish, Cantonese, and Mandarin so that each target audience involved in this issue could be included. At this time vaquita had received increased coverage including a story by 60 Minutes, but the issue continued to be buried by so many other world issues, and sadly the vaquita remained outside of the spotlight.

The effort to raise more awareness around the world about the vaquita did continue however, with the 4th annual International Save the Vaquita Day (ISTVD).  Viva Vaquita is one of the organizations that has been on the front lines of vaquita outreach since this issue came to light, and this group has been the catalyst for ISTVD.  In 2016 ISTVD events were held in 31 locations around the world including cities in Mexico, the US and China.  This event was extremely successful in terms of reaching the general public in various countries and informing them of this urgent issue.

There was also a surge of interest in vaquita from governments, NGO’s, and conservationists in 2016.  Much of these vaquita awareness efforts were focused on engaging the local fishing communities in a number of ways. To enhance transparency, a program involving a fishing activity monitoring program was implemented.  The fishermen involved in this program allowed authorities to track their fishing activities using GPS. Additionally, there was continued effort to involved local fisherman in acoustic monitoring program for the vaquita.  This project involves deploying and retrieving the data recorders that collect vaquita population data by recording the high frequency sonar clicks emitted by this unique species of porpoise.  Another program implemented most recently involved the removal of derelict gillnets that had been causing harm to vaquitas and other marine mammals. The great benefit of these programs is the engagement that they create within the communities of the upper gulf.

Mexican Navy on a patrol.

Mexican Navy on a patrol.

In addition to the outreach  in Mexico, organizations in China also addressed the vaquita issue by raising awareness about the illegal totoaba swim bladder trade.  Up until this point, Greenpeace was the only entity that conducted a thorough investigation and released a report addressing this illegal trade.  Since then WildAid and the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) have also conducted their own investigations and been campaigning to stop this illegal trade.

Moving beyond the upper gulf region is also essential however, since the majority of the seafood products harvested from the region are consumed elsewhere around the globe.  The global movement towards responsibly sourced seafood allows the consumer to be conscience of their seafood purchases and offers traceability to the source of the seafood and how it was harvested. Programs like this have been extremely successful around the world and although this specific effort is in its infancy, it is encouraging and we are excited for it to take shape.  I must say that there are many more actions taking place by various organizations in vaquita conservation that we have not mentioned here, but we want to assure you that there is a lot of thought, time, and money being poured into vaquita conservation. Everyone involved is hoping to turn this around and help find balance in the fishing communities and the ecosystem.

Seafood market in San Felipe, Mexico.

Seafood market in San Felipe, Mexico.

Despite all these positive efforts however, it must be said that the vaquita population continues to crash at a startling rate.  Now is a time for desperate measures.  The Environmental Minister of Mexico, Rafael Pacchiano announced just a few weeks ago that Mexico will implement a massive effort to capture the remaining vaquitas and launch a captive breeding program for the species.  This will be no small feat, and there numerous factors that must be considered.  First task is to find a vaquita, preferably a male and a female. Second task is to capture it.  Third task is to hope that it survives during the capture process, transport, and placement into the breeding facility. The question that everyone is asking themselves is do we risk in contributing to the vaquita decline with all of these unknown factors?  The answer for many is no, but for others it is yes. No one wants to see a world without the vaquita, but no one one wants to possible kill a vaquita in trying to save them. With the vaquita hanging in the balance and man trying to adjust its habits from negatively impacting the the natural world, humankind faces a dilemma that we have faced before and will face again, likely many times.

Artisan glass artist creating a vaquita sculpture.

Artisan glass artist creating a vaquita sculpture in San Felipe.

We will enter the year 2017 under similar circumstances as we did the previous year. Our objective is to modify our actions in hopes that we can avoid the outcome that we all dread… the approaching extinction of the vaquita. Wild Lens will continue document this story for the foreseeable future – we have never lost hope that the vaquita will survive and this applies to so many other dedicated people.  Let’s not just continue doing what we have all done previously for the vaquita….let’s do a lot more! The vaquita needs a voice and we should be that voice.  We are the voice for all species!

Here we are at the end of 2016 waiting to see what the new year will bring…

Check out our brief timeline of vaquita events in 2016:

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