Vaquita Monitoring Begins in the Upper Gulf of California

San Felipe, BCN-The government of Mexico announces the second leg of the 2019 Vaquita Survey. Sea Shepherd is pleased to collaborate with The National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) and world-leading vaquita scientists on this important research project in waters of the Upper Gulf of California Biosphere Reserve and the Colorado River Delta. Photo identification of specimens of vaquita marina (Phocoena sinus) to verify the presence, size and characteristics of the population, will be the two-week project’s objective.

During the previous expedition in September 2019, six vaquitas were sighted in the Gulf of California, proving that these animals still exist and are in need of protection. Using state-of-the-art equipment including Long Range “Big Eye” Scopes, this important survey provides insight into the behavior and location of the most endangered marine mammal in the world.

This next phase of the research expedition to photo identify vaquitas takes place from October 14 to 28. The first photo identification efforts were made in 2008 and later in 2017 and 2018 as well as September 2019. Photo identification consists of taking advantage of the natural marks and scars of the animals to identify each individual photographically, which allows scientists to study movements of distinctive animals and provides support to estimates of population size among other details. Thanks to this type of work, in 2018, a mother was observed with her calf – a different calf than the one that had been identified in 2017.

The positive outcome of this finding is that it opens the possibility that this species breeds on an annual basis and not every two years, as was previously believed. This implies that the recovery rate of the vaquita could be much faster than initially anticipated.

This month’s investigation is coordinated by CONANP with the support of the Mexican Navy, Museo de la Ballena y Ciencias del Mar, and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) with the participation of researchers and observers from Mexico and from other countries.

The vaquita marina, one of the smallest porpoises in the world, is endemic to the Gulf of California and is in danger of extinction.

Operation Milagro, Sea Shepherd’s campaign to protect the critically-endangered vaquita, is in its sixth season and will continue in collaboration with the Mexican government, removing the illegal fishing gear that threatens the survival of the most endangered marine mammal in the world.

Read the full release here:

https://www.gob.mx/conanp/prensa/inician-tareas-de-monitoreo-de-vaquita-marina-en-el-alto-golfo-de-california

Vaquita Monitoring Begins in the Upper Gulf of California

San Felipe, BCN-The government of Mexico announces the second leg of the 2019 Vaquita Survey. Sea Shepherd is pleased to collaborate with The National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) and world-leading vaquita scientists on this important research project in waters of the Upper Gulf of California Biosphere Reserve and the Colorado River Delta. Photo identification of specimens of vaquita marina (Phocoena sinus) to verify the presence, size and characteristics of the population, will be the two-week project’s objective.

Expedition to Sight Critically Endangered Vaquita Porpoise a Success

Leading scientists from Mexico and the USA, supported by Sea Shepherd confirm the first sightings of vaquita in 2019, bringing hope for the species.

San Felipe, BC, Mexico, August 5th, 2019 – A group of scientists and conservationists record the first vaquita sightings of 2019. The visual sighting expedition, a joint effort by Mexico’s National Commission on Protected Areas (CONANP), Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and Museo de la Ballena y Ciencias del mar, is taking place in the Upper Gulf of California, with participation of leading marine mammal researchers from the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur (UABCS) and the USA, as well as support from the Mexican Navy.

Sea Shepherd crew on board the M/V Sharpie had sightings of two pairs of Vaquitas on August 19th and 20th, then two Vaquitas were photographed when sighted on September 3rd. With leading scientists on board, the organizations took advantage of the few days of calm weather to look for the vaquita individuals. Vaquita are the smallest cetaceans on the planet and the most endangered marine mammal on Earth. The species is endemic to Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California. It is estimated there are less than nineteen vaquita alive today.

For the past five years, Sea Shepherd has maintained a maritime presence in the Upper Gulf of California, working with Mexican authorities to protect the rare porpoise. Sea Shepherd removes illegal gillnets from vaquita habitat to protect the mammal from getting ensnared in nets set to catch another endangered species, the totoaba fish.

Totoaba is targeted for its lucrative “buche” or swim bladder, which is trafficked and sold in black markets in Asia. The bladders are consumed in a soup believed to have beneficial health properties, despite lack of scientific evidence confirming such claims. This wildlife trafficking scheme is responsible for the critical situation the vaquitas are facing. Vaquita and totoaba are of a similar size, thus the gillnet mesh used to catch the totoaba are the perfect death trap for the small porpoise.

Despite collaborating with scientists for many years, providing data and supporting acoustic monitoring efforts, this is the first time Sea Shepherd has participated in a visual identification expedition to identify and document vaquita. Sea Shepherd first recorded a vaquita on April 18th, 2015, just two days after Mexico had announced a strong plan of action to protect the vaquita porpoise, bringing the country to the forefront of conservation of endemic species. The 2015 sighting had been the first recording of a vaquita in two years, bringing immediate urgency of the situation to Mexican authorities and paving the way to a long-lasting collaboration between Mexico and Sea Shepherd to protect the species.

The recent collaborative expedition sighted three groups of two vaquitas, between August 19th and September 3rd, in the waters East of San Felipe, Baja California. According to specialists, the vaquitas documented were adult specimens and appeared in good health. “It is excellent to see these vaquitas are well fed, plump and healthy looking, “said conservation biologist and long term vaquita researcher Dr. Barbara Taylor, “this invigorates the resolve for Mexico to protect their species”.

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The Research Program for the vaquita is an effort by CONANP and has been a reliable tool to understand the vaquita population for many years. Their acoustic monitoring program is responsible for the most accurate assessments of vaquita trends, therefore a vital tool in efforts to protect the species.

“Following the lead of CONANP and thanks to their tremendous monitoring efforts of the vaquita population, we have been able to find, film and photograph some of the last individuals, “said Eva Hidalgo, Sea Shepherd’s Science Coordinator. “This research work is extremely important to show the world that vaquitas are still alive and strong, so inter-institutional efforts such as the retrieval of illegal gillnets can continue to protect vaquita from extinction,” Hidalgo finished.

The expert vaquita researchers were excited to see the results, “to see vaquitas alive is a relief and shows that we must continue to protect the species,” said Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, the head of the Mexican Vaquita Research Program. Captain Locky Maclean, Sea Shepherd’s Director of Marine Operations emphasized the importance of protecting the area where vaquitas remain, by stating, “the zero tolerance area recommended by CIRVA must be completely net free, this is where Sea Shepherd has been focusing patrol efforts and will continue to do so.”

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Sea Shepherd has been present in the Vaquita Refuge for the last five years under an agreement of cooperation with the government of Mexico and remains committed to providing its full assistance. Sea Shepherd has deployed multiple vessels from its patrol fleet, monitoring poaching and retrieving 990 pieces of illegal fishing gear, including approximately 200 kilometers of illegal gear – all from vaquita habitat. Sea Shepherd’s vessel, the M/V Sharpie is currently inside the vaquita habitat performing this important collaborative visual spotting expedition to gather data and visual identification of the last vaquita porpoises.

“It is very important to document these live vaquitas,” said Sea Shepherd founder and CEO Captain Paul Watson. “Our crews have been working tirelessly, day and night, to remove the gillnet threat from the vaquita’s path. Some say the plight of the vaquita is a lost cause, but we believe that lost causes are the only causes worth fighting for and all our crew are united in this belief that the impossible can become possible. And it is the passion, courage, imagination and resourcefulness of my incredible crew that will win this fight for the vaquitas and for the oceans.”

Sea Shepherd’s illegal gillnet removal program, Operation Milagro, will resume in early October, working with Mexican authorities as fishing season begins in the Upper Gulf of California.

Sea Shepherd’s Recommendations Taken Seriously at CITES CoP 18

Sea Shepherd’s legal team took part in the world’s most important conference on endangered wildlife trade to make recommendations to protect the vaquita porpoise from extinction, based on the NGO’s extensive experience in the field.

CITES Conference Report Mexico

On May 28-29th by invitation of SEMARNAT, Mexico’s Environment Ministry, Sea Shepherd attended a High Level Mission meeting organized by CITES focusing on the urgent situation of the totoaba bass and the vaquita marina at SEMAR NAVAL AVIATION BASE in La Paz, Mexico. During this session, Captain Locky MacLean (Sea Shepherd Campaigns and Ship Operations Director) and Eva Hidalgo (Sea Shepherd Science Coordinator) were able to present an update from the field outlining the importance of Operation Milagro, an ongoing campaign to protect the critically endangered vaquita porpoise from extinction. Data from the field will help the CITES Secretariat make crucial recommendations to Mexico, to assist the challenges the nation’s endangered wild life faces in the Upper Gulf of California.

Sea Shepherd Statement regarding the events in the Vaquita habitat on March 28th, 2019

EN ESPANOL {link to scroll down to Spanish version}

On the morning of March 28th, 2019, Sea Shepherd ships were conducting routine patrols in the Upper Gulf of California, Mexico, when an illegal totoaba gillnet was identified. While following the protocol of retrieving the illegal net, a skiff headed towards the M/V Sharpie at full speed.

Sea Shepherd Statement regarding the events in the Vaquita habitat on March 28th, 2019

EN ESPANOL {link to scroll down to Spanish version}

On the morning of March 28th, 2019, Sea Shepherd ships were conducting routine patrols in the Upper Gulf of California, Mexico, when an illegal totoaba gillnet was identified. While following the protocol of retrieving the illegal net, a skiff headed towards the M/V Sharpie at full speed.

Sea Shepherd Discovers Dead Vaquita Caught in Gillnet

The vaquita, one of the last specimens of the most endangered marine mammal in the world, was trapped in a net inside the Vaquita Refuge attesting that illegal gillnets are the biggest threat to the tiny cetacean.

San Felipe, Mexico – March 14, 2019 – On the morning of March 12th, 2019 Sea Shepherd ships M/V Farley Mowat and M/V Sharpie were on routine patrol in the Vaquita Refuge searching for illegal gillnets when they found a target.  At that moment, net removal was not a possibility due to sea and weather conditions.

As per usual procedure, the Sea Shepherd crew recorded the location and returned to remove the illegal fishing gear when sea state allowed.  The crew of Sea Shepherd’s M/V Farley Mowat started removing the illegal gillnet at 3 pm.  Wildlife was trapped in the net, and as the crew was pulling it in they found an unidentified white animal. Some assumed it to be a totoaba fish.

The totoaba fish is the target species for the illegal gillnets that threaten the vaquita porpoise with imminent extinction.  The two animals are of a very similar size, endemic to the Upper Gulf of California, and critically endangered.  Their size and habitat likeness make the gillnets set to catch the totoaba the perfect death trap for the last vaquitas on earth.  Totoabas are being caught to supply a lucrative black market of their swim bladders, which are sold as “medicinal” soup in Asia.  The endangered fish is killed for less than 5% of its body.  The rest is then discarded and left to rot.

The unidentified animal was clearly dead, as the crew was reeling the net into the Sea Shepherd ship it fell off and into the ocean.  The Sea Shepherd drone was launched in an attempt to identify the species before it floated away.  The animal was too decomposed, and the fluke and head were missing, but crew believed it looked like a vaquita porpoise.  Captain Octavio Carranza then deployed the small boat team and Sea Shepherd scientist Laura Sánchez in a further effort to identify the animal.

“The state of decomposition of the body of the cetacean was too advanced for us to be able to identify it,” said scientist Laura Sánchez.  “The absence of the cranium further hampered the situation,” she finished.

After sending preliminary photographs to marine mammal experts and Sea Shepherd scientific advisers, it was determined that morphology and length matched the body of a vaquita porpoise.  Genetic analysis is needed to confirm the identity of species.

Sea Shepherd transported the possible vaquita corpse to San Felipe, where it was given to government authorities for identification.

Sea Shepherd is working in close cooperation with Mexican governmental agencies such as the Environmental Secretariat (SEMARNAT), Navy (SEMAR), Fisheries Department (CONAPESCA), Federal Attorney’s Office for Environmental Protection (PROFEPA), and the National Commission of Protected Areas (CONANP) to ensure urgent measures are undertaken to protect the vaquita.

Recently there have been rumors spread in the Upper Gulf of California area that gillnets are not a threat to vaquitas and other cetaceans, inciting demands to the Mexican government.

Sea Shepherd has been present in the Upper Gulf of California since 2015 as part of Operation Milagro.  In that time, the crew has documented the entanglement of 36 marine mammals trapped in illegal gillnets. Nine of them were cetaceans, only one of which was able to be saved – a juvenile humpback whale in early 2016.

Although Sea Shepherd has found several dead vaquitas confirmed by scientists to have been killed from entanglement, this is the first time one has been discovered still trapped in a gillnet.

“If there were any reservations about totoaba gillnets being a great danger for vaquitas and other cetaceans, despite ample proof in the past, this event should definitely leave no room for doubt,” said Sea Shepherd Director of Marine Operations Locky Maclean.