July 9, 2014
International Save the Vaquita Day is coming on July 12, 2014. What is a vaquita, you ask? The vaquita is the world’s most endangered marine mammal! These cute little porpoises have dark markings around their eyes and mouths which distinguish them from other porpoises. Vaquita grows to just about five feet in length, and is the smallest of the whales and dolphins. Vaquitas can only be found in one place in the world, the tip of the Sea of Cortez between Baja California and mainland Mexico, in an area only about a quarter of the size of metropolitan Los Angeles and about 100 miles from Arizona’s southern border.
CEDO Intercultural, a bi-national organization based in Puerto Peñasco , Mexico and Tucson, Arizona, has been studying and working on the conservation of vaquita since the 1980s. It all began in 1980 when Peggy Turk Boyer, CEDO Intercultural founder and Executive Director, took a walk along the Las Conchas beach early one morning and got her first look at a vaquita. She saw something in the distance rolling in the waves. As she got closer, she saw it was a unique and beautiful little porpoise, which she later learned was a vaquita. This was only the first, more animals would wash ashore as the years went by. Peggy and co-founder and Co-Director emeritus, Richard Boyer, found more vaquitas and others were brought in by fishermen. Then one day in 1994 a live vaquita calf was brought to CEDO! Sadly, they were unable to save it.
But they were hooked! And the quest began to understand the vaquita, the regions’ fisheries and the ecosystem on which they both depend. The small and elusive vaquitas live only in the northern-most reaches of the Sea of Cortez. The vaquita has the misfortune of getting accidentally entangled in fishermen’s gill nets, the most efficient gear fishermen have for catching shrimp, mackerel, and drum. Every year many vaquita die due to gill net entanglement. Mexican fishermen of the Upper Gulf of the Sea of Cortez set their nets but the vaquita can’t see them in the murky water until it is too late. When they swim into the nets, which hang in the water like volleyball nets, they become entangled. As mammals, they need to surface for air, but they can’t when caught in the nets, so they drown. The best scientific estimate is that less than 180 vaquita remain.
CEDO’s early efforts were focused on understanding the problem:
• CEDO conducted the first estimate of fishing related mortality of the vaquita (Silver and Turk Boyer 1994)
• CEDO did the first assessment of Upper Gulf small scale fisheries, determining what, where and how fishing takes place, and how it overlaps with vaquita (Cudney-Bueno and Turk-Boyer 1998)
The more they learned, however, the more they knew they had to engage fishermen, youth, teachers and visitors in understanding the problem and helping find the solution. For five years in the 90s CEDO did environmental education programs on vaquita and totoaba and their Upper Gulf habitat in the region’s schools, first with students and then with teachers. They produced publications on vaquita, fisheries, and even published a regional newspaper and a curriculum. It was the community action program, however, that really engaged fishermen for the first time. They focused on helping improve sustainability for fisheries that did not impact vaquita, such as the dive fisheries. Divers established voluntary marine reserves, improving the productivity of their fisheries.
Meanwhile in 1993 the government established the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve to offer some protection for the vaquita and the totoaba, both endemic and endangered species in the region. Scientific studies later showed that the vaquita population was centered near Rocas Consag, an island offshore of San Felipe. In 2005 the government established the Vaquita Refuge, where no fishing was allowed, to give additional protection for this porpoise in the area of greatest concentration of the species. The scientific consensus, however, was that to save the vaquita, fishing related mortality would have to be reduced to zero in the entire area of distribution.
This past spring CEDO organized a contest for fishermen to stimulate them to help find alternative gear that might be more acceptable to them. In June contest participants worked with an international team of gear experts to improve on their gear designs, and they are now ready for testing. If successful, these could become viable alternatives for catching shrimp and saving the vaquita. CEDO is beginning tests of the new nets this fall, with the opening of the shrimp season.
A comprehensive recovery program called the PACE Vaquita was initiated in 2008. Fishermen were offered financial incentives to give up their gill nets and permits, for starting alternative businesses, for participating in alternative fisheries, for experimenting with new gear, or just simply to not fish in the Vaquita Refuge. These efforts were met with some success, but only about a third of the effort was reduced. This past spring, the government outlawed gill nets, with a plan to phase them out over the next three years. An alternative trawl gear, pulled by pangas, has now been approved for catching shrimp, as it does not capture vaquita. Fishermen have some net designs they want to test as well.
Last year, a group of dedicated students from the USA known as the Muskwa Club founded a day devoted to raising awareness of the vaquitas’ plight. They called that day National Save the Vaquita Day. This year, both the club and the dedicated day have expanded internationally, promoted by the members of the Viva Vaquita Coalition, which includes the Muskwa Club, various chapters of the American Cetacean Society (ACS Monterey was a founding member,) V-log, Save the Whales, the Oceanic and Environmental Research Society, CEDO Intercultural, and Cetos Research Organization. Other partners in the international effort include Estudiantes SOMEMMA, the Marine Awareness and Conservation Society of the University of Arizona, the Hong Kong Dolphin Research and Conservation Society, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and other researchers and organizations internationally. Visit http://www.cedointercultural.org/ for more information on the vaquita ( vaquita pages: http://www.cedointercultural.org/content/view/69/66/lang,en/ ).
Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans – CEDO, Inc.
P.O. Box 44208
Tucson, AZ 85733
For more information, contact us at: firstname.lastname@example.org