EXTINCTION IS IMMINENT
CIRVA reviewed the 2015 population survey results, which showed that only about 60 vaquitas remained at the beginning of the emergency 2-year partial gillnet ban. CIRVA also heard reports from the Mexican Navy and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society of extensive illegal gillnet activity and noted that at least three vaquitas are known to have died in fishing gear in March 2016. CIRVA therefore recommends that the Government of Mexico immediately implement and enforce a permanent ban on all gillnets throughout the entire range of the vaquita and seriously consider the closure of all fishing there if evidence of illegal activities continues. The choice is simple and stark: either gillnetting in the upper Gulf ends, or the vaquita becomes extinct within a very short time.
Results of the Acoustic Monitoring Program indicate that the vaquita population experienced an average annual decline of 34% (95% CI 21 to 48%) from 2011 to 2015, prior to the emergency gillnet ban which began in May 2015. It is certain (a 100% chance) that the population decreased during this time interval and almost certain (a 98% chance) that it decreased at an annual rate of more than 20%. Overall, the model results indicate that the population decreased by 80% (95% CI 62% – 93%) between 2011 and 2015. CIRVA recommends continuation of this work to allow annual estimation of population trend.
About 60 vaquitas remained at the beginning of the gillnet ban according to Expedición Internacional Vaquita Marina 2015, conducted from 28 September to 3 December 2015 and covering the entire known range of the vaquita. The estimated total abundance of vaquitas in 2015, based on the combined results of the visual line transect survey and static passive acoustic monitoring, was 59 (95% CRI 22 – 145). Previous estimates of abundance were 567 (95% CI 177 – 1,073) in 1997 and 245 (95% CI 68-884) in 2008.
A PERMANENT GILLNET BAN IS REQUIRED
The gillnet ban appeared to be largely effective during October and November 2015, the typical shrimp season, with the waters virtually empty of pangas. However, in March 2016, during the curvina (Cynoscion othonopterus) season, three vaquitas were found dead from gillnet entanglement and extensive evidence of illegal fishing for totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) was obtained during the months from December-May, clearly demonstrating the inadequacy of the enforcement effort and that illegal fishing has continued to undermine the vaquita conservation effort (CIRVA emphasizes that there is no reason to believe any vaquitas died in the curvina fishery). CIRVA remains extremely concerned that illegal activities could be disguised by any form of fishing that involves pangas. This concern will remain as long as laws and enforcement are too weak to deter or prevent illegal fishing. CIRVA therefore recommends that the Government of Mexico immediately implement and enforce a permanent ban on all gillnets throughout the entire range of the vaquita and seriously consider the closure of all fishing there if evidence of illegal activities continues to come to light. At this juncture, the choice is simple and stark: either gillnetting in the Upper Gulf ends, or the vaquita becomes extinct within a very short time.
ENFORCEMENT MUST CONTINUE AND BE STRENGTHENED AND ILLEGAL TOTOABA GILLNETS REMOVED
The head of SEMARNAT, Secretary Rafael Pacchiano Alamán, emphasized to CIRVA-7 the need to strengthen protective measures for the vaquita. He encouraged local communities to assist with the detection of illegal fishing activity in the Upper Gulf. Federal authorities are working together in the Integrated Strategy for the Recovery of the Vaquita, set in place by the President of Mexico, to counter illegal fishing for totoaba and to combat illegal trafficking of totoaba products.
The Mexican Navy (SEMAR) and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society reported on their joint monitoring efforts. In cooperation with the Navy and PROFEPA, Sea Shepherd gathered extensive evidence of totoaba poaching and, between January and May, retrieved 42 illegal gillnets and 16 illegal longlines. The team encountered nets that had been set for very long periods, as well as freshly set nets in recently patrolled areas. Even as the illegal totoaba fishery winds down in early summer 2016, abandoned nets pose an active risk to vaquitas throughout their range. CIRVA applauds the collaboration among the SEMAR, PROFEPA, and Sea Shepherd and recommends that such collaboration be continued and strengthened in the 2016-2017 season. CIRVA further recommends that efforts to remove gillnets from throughout the vaquita’s range be intensified as a matter of utmost urgency.
USE AND DEVELOPMENT OF ALTERNATIVE FISHING GEAR MUST BE PURSUED WITH ATTENTION TO MARKETS
CIRVA reviewed the results and recommendations of a Workshop on Fishing Technologies for the Upper Gulf of California held in April 2016 in Mérida, México. CIRVA reiterates that there is no reason for the Government of Mexico to delay the issuance of commercial permits to fish for shrimp with the “Selective net RS-INP-MX” trawl, which has received adequate testing. CIRVA stresses the need for continued investment of time and resources by all sectors in alternative fishing technology development. CIRVA believes that there must be an unequivocal, high-level commitment from the Mexican Government to ensure that lead agencies (INAPESCA, CONAPESCA, and SEMARNAT) are diligent in carrying out full implementation of the protocols described in the Mérida Workshop report. CIRVA noted that the burden on enforcement could increase considerably if many pangas are allowed access to the gillnet-free area. Therefore, a caveat to any recommendation concerning alternative gear development or testing is that it should be implemented as stated only if all experimental fishing operations are closely and effectively monitored.
CIRVA recommends that every effort be made to develop gillnet-free fisheries in the Upper Gulf and to strengthen linkages between the fishermen using alternative gears and the seafood supply chain – this is a critical step toward incentivizing the conversion to gillnet-free operations.
EX SITU CONSERVATION MUST BE CONSIDERED
Given the continued decline of the vaquita population, CIRVA considered the question of ex situ approaches to vaquita conservation. While recognizing the risks and complexities of such an approach, CIRVA concluded that fieldwork to determine the feasibility of ex situ conservation actions for the vaquita is warranted. However, CIRVA stresses that such ex situ work only makes sense if the gillnet ban is extended indefinitely and does not divert funding and efforts away from extension and enforcement of the gillnet ban, which remains the highest-priority conservation action for the vaquita. Any ex situ action will involve some risk to individual animals and the vaquita may not prove to be suitable for ex situ conservation actions. Fieldwork will proceed in a staged manner, with review by CIRVA at appropriate intervals and the option to cease work after each review. CIRVA agreed unanimously that capture of all remaining vaquitas is not a viable conservation strategy for vaquitas, which must, first and foremost, be protected in their wild habitat.
Finally, CIRVA recommends that: (1) a Presidential advisory body be formed to address vaquita conservation in a broader context, including the development of viable socio-economic alternatives for Upper Gulf communities; and (2) the Governments of Mexico and the United States co-host an Economic Summit to stimulate the development of alternative livelihoods, such as aquaculture, sport fishing, tourism, and wind and solar energy, in the Upper Gulf.