The Dire Status of the Vaquita Has Worsened
Analysis of the 2016 Acoustic Monitoring Program data has shown that almost half of the remaining vaquita population was lost between 2015 and 2016 (a 49% annual decline). The average annual rate of decline between 2011 and 2016 is now estimated to be 39%, corresponding to a population decline of 90% over this five-year period. CIRVA estimates that, as of November 2016, only approximately 30 vaquitas likely remained. Thus, the already desperate situation has worsened, despite existing conservation measures and current enforcement efforts. Unless this decline can be stopped by eliminating mortality in illegal gillnets, the vaquita will be extinct in a few years. The critical work of the Acoustic Monitoring Program must continue to allow estimation of population trend and to allow evaluation of the efficacy of current and future conservation measures.
High Levels of Illegal Fishing Continue
A multi-institutional program to find and remove illegal and abandoned fishing gear in the range of the vaquita recently completed its first phase of work. In fifteen days of field work in October and November 2016, 105 pieces of illegal, abandoned, or derelict fishing gear were discovered and 85 of these were removed. Thirty-one illegal totoaba gillnets, including 23 nets that had been recently set, were recovered. This shows that illegal fishing activities, particularly the setting of large-mesh gillnets for totoaba, continue at alarming levels within the range of the vaquita. CIRVA recommends that this important program should continue to remove fishing gear from the range of the vaquita.
A Permanent and Complete Gillnet Ban Is Essential
CIRVA repeats its previous recommendation that the Government of Mexico implement a permanent ban on all gillnets throughout the entire range of the vaquita. Given that the current two-year ban expires in April 2017, regulations implementing this ban should be published immediately in the Diario Oficial de la Federación. CIRVA reiterates its previous recommendation that the sale or possession of gillnets on land and at sea should be illegal within the area of the current gillnet ban and adjacent lands. This permanent ban must include gillnets used as rodeo nets in the curvina fishery. The results of the fishing gear removal program demonstrate that illegal totoaba fishing continued to be rampant, even before the curvina season started. The curvina fishery provides cover for illegal activities and complicates enforcement. As a result, CIRVA recommends that the gillnet ban include the curvina fishery.
Enforcement and Prosecution Must Be Strengthened
Continued high levels of illegal gillnet fishing, the confirmed deaths of three vaquitas in gillnets earlier this year, and a 50% decline in abundance over the past year demonstrate that present enforcement efforts have been insufficient. There is a critical need for more effective enforcement of existing fisheries regulations. This includes immediate response to reports of illegal fishing activity in the Upper Gulf, arrests, and prosecutions. CIRVA commends the collaboration between the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the Mexican Navy and recommends that this important partnership be continued. In addition, CIRVA reiterates that existing laws must be strengthened and penalties increased so that they act as a real deterrent to illegal fishing. Unless enforcement and prosecution efforts succeed in preventing illegal fishing for totoaba, the vaquita will soon be extinct.
Development of Alternative Fishing Gear Must Be Pursued
Progress on the development of alternative fishing gear has been too slow. CIRVA emphasises the need for the Mexican Government to follow the recommendations and protocols of the Expert Committee for Fishing Technologies in the Upper Gulf of California. CIRVA reiterates the need to accelerate the development of viable alternative fishing methods and to train fishermen in their use. This will require testing and use of alternative gears and requires developing methods of monitoring, control, surveillance and traceability. In turn, this requires the lead agencies, National Institute of Fisheries and Aquaculture (INAPESCA), National Commission of Fisheries and Aquaculture (CONAPESCA), and Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT), to work immediately, effectively and transparently with the Expert Committee.
Some Vaquitas Should Be Placed in a Temporary Sanctuary
Given the dire situation, CIRVA recommends that attempts be made as a matter of urgency to place some vaquitas into a temporary sanctuary. The goal of this program is to protect these animals until they can be returned into a gillnet-free environment. Capturing and housing vaquitas will be difficult, and perhaps impossible, and the species may not prove to be suitable for such conservation actions. This work should not divert effort and resources away from extension and enforcement of the gillnet ban, which remains the highest-priority conservation action for the species. Given potential risk to individual animals, these attempts must proceed in a staged manner, with review by CIRVA at appropriate intervals and the option to cease work after each review. CIRVA agreed that capture of all remaining vaquitas is not feasible and is, therefore, not a viable conservation strategy. The species must be, first and foremost, protected in its wild habitat.