Project Description

VaquitaThe Vaquita Porpoise Crisis

With the recent extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin, also known as the baiji dolphin in China, the vaquita porpoise, now becomes the world’s most endangered marine mammal, with less than 180 animals remaining as of July, 2014, according to world scientists.  That number is down from just over 500 ten years ago and it is estimated that the population could be declining by 25 each year. At this rate, vaquita are declining to a level where extinction may be inevitable regardless of efforts underway or good intentions. The baiji dolphin was the first cetacean species to be documented as being driven to extinction by humans. The vaquita could soon join it.

The Problem
Vaquita porpoises are especially vulnerable with the smallest geographic range of any marine mammal – approximately a 900 square mile area – less than 1/5 the size of metropolitan Los Angeles – in the very northern area of the Gulf of California in Mexico. This highly productive area is excellent for producing fish and shrimp for both domestic and U.S. consumption. The vaquita become accidentally entangled in the gill nets used by the fisherman and they drown.

To save vaquita all the gill nets must come out of their habitat very quickly. Saving vaquita will require substantial financial resources, support for the communities and fishermen that are making the needed changes, and constant and vigilant enforcement. But, the rewards are huge: not only saving the vaquita, but providing a critical example to the world that humans and porpoises can share coastal waters.

The Solution
Scientists agree that the only solution to this dire problem is to totally eliminate fishing with gillnets in the vaquita habitat. This can be accomplished through a combination of buying out some fishermen and converting them to other livelihoods and compensating remaining fishermen to use alternative fishing methods that do not endanger the vaquita.

from_webWithout precedence anywhere in the world, Mexico is responding to the urgent need for action. Fishermen are voluntarily giving up their rights to fish in the region in order to save the vaquita, with a compensation program to buy them out. This calls for tremendous sacrifice on their part and presents many challenges as they try to define their new livelihoods. The Mexican government has set aside approximately 70% of the vaquita habitat as a “no fishing” zone.

Concerned non-governmental agencies and foundations seek to encourage and assist the Mexican government and fishermen to immediately take the necessary steps to save this most endangered marine mammal.

In spring, 2014, 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.   The new designs began testing in the fall of 2014.

The latest news:

Drastic Measures are needed to help Save Vaquita

On December 4, CEDO’s Executive director, Peggy Turk Boyer, wrote this summary on the plight of vaquitas in response to an email inquiry:

In the last few days Upper Gulf fishermen were in meetings with government authorities in Mexico City negotiating details of how to reduce their impacts on the vaquita porpoise. Recently it has been calculated that there are only 100 porpoises left. Ceasing fishing for a couple of years was on the table, with lots of negotiation on how much compensation they would get, and what gear could be used, as well as which communities would be affected.  I just got word of the results of the meeting.

For at least one year (possibly 2) all fishing with gillnets will cease in the Upper Gulf, this will include finfish and shrimp, but not corvina. It will also include the use of longline. Fishermen at El Golfo and in San Felipe will be compensated for each permit they have for the excluded fisheries. Puerto Penasco fishermen were excluded from this compensation, but I need to clarify whether the restrictions apply to them or not.

This is an amazing accomplishment and buys time for restructuring fisheries so that the system is more functional (clear rules, compliance and enforcement) and gear that damages fisheries species and endangered species like vaquita is replaced with alternatives. There is a lot of work to be done to restructure this fishery system, but we are moving forward with parts of it.

This will have many benefits for the ecosystem and ultimately for fishermen as well.



Watch CEDO’s Save Vaquita video

More on Vaquitas: 

Visit Whale Trackers for videos, blogs and information on the most recent vaquita population expedition. Whale Trackersproduces documentaries from throughout the world’s oceans exploring the lives of whales, dolphins and porpoises. They document the most recent vaquita study. 

According to a 2008 study, which CEDO was involved in, the  number of vaquitas was estimated at 250. This is better than the previous estimates of 150.  Below is an article about the study in Nature.
– Nature, June 2010: “Endangered-porpoise numbers fall to just 250.”

Watch the music video that reminds us about the endangered porpoise: YouTube: click here and turn up the volume on your speakers!

– Nature: “Endangered-porpoise numbers fall to just 250.”
– “New Study Shows Decline in Endangered Vaquita Population.”

On CEDO’s website: A list of businesses started by fishermen, who were paid to give up their fishing permits to help save the vaquita porpoise. The Mexican government is paying fishermen to retire their fishing permits, and the fishermen are using the money to start new businesses, including hotels and cabins (cabañas), eco-tour services, sport fishing and restaurants. It is very important to support these businesses because these people gave up their way of life in order to help make sure the vaquita does not become extinct. Businesses so far have been started in three Northern Gulf of California towns: Puerto Peñasco, Golfo De Santa Clara and San Felipe.

To view the list of businesses click here for the PDF file. Feel free to print it out and spread the word.

CEDO’s Rare Vaquita Video
Watch exclusive footage of a live vaquita calf. Vaquita are the most endangered marine mammmals in the world. On May 13, 1994, a live vaquita calf stranded itself on the beach east of CEDO’s field station. The calf came to shore that afternoon about six miles east of the mouth of Estero Morúa, near Puerto Peñasco, and later was placed in the hands of CEDO staff by visiting Arizonans, who were staying at a beach house near the estero. Eventually the vaquita calf made its way to CEDO and was placed in a large tank. Urgent calls to marine mammal experts were made, asking them what to do, and specifically what to feed it. No one had ever held a live vaquita in captivity before. Despite the efforts of all involved, the animal died after about two hours at CEDO. The prognosis was never good, as the calf was very young and the chances of survival for a porpoise that young separated from its mother are very low. This is the vaquita’s story.

Exciting Vaquita Video Footage 
On October 19, 2008 documentary filmmaker and photgrapher Chris Johnson, from Whale Trackers, captured rare video footage of the endangered Vaquita porpoise alongside scientist Tom Jefferson. From October-November 2008, Chris was documenting “Expedition Vaquita” in the Northern Gulf of California Mexico, a multi-national scientifitic survey led by the Instituto Nacional de Ecologia in Ensenada (INE) and NOAA Fisheries Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California. Check out the amazing video below.

An Encounter with Vaquita from Chris Johnson on Vimeo.
– All video and photographs are © 2008 Chris Johnson – earthOCEAN (All Rights Reserved).

– Chris Johnson’s media website has a lot of graphics, articles and images about vaquita

History of vaquita

The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) was first discovered in 1958 when an individual was beached in San Felipe, Baja California Norte. In 1980 CEDO began to encounter vaquitas on the beaches of Puerto Peñasco and renewed interest was generated in the scientific community.   Endemic to the Northern Gulf of California, today the vaquita is considered the most endangered cetacean in the world.  It received this distinction when the Baji, the Chinese River dolphin, was declared functionally extinct in December 2006.

As the scientific community learned more about the vaquita population, its size, limited distribution in the Northern Gulf and high incidental mortality in gillnet fisheries, it concluded that fishing related mortality of the species must be reduced to zero for the vaquita to survive.  In 1997 scientists estimated the vaquita population at fewer than 600 animals, today that number has declined, with probably fewer than 200 of these porpoises surviving.

The establishment of the Upper Gulf of California/Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve in 1993 was an important first step to protect the vaquita and its habitat. It has proved challenging to restrict fishing in an area where it was for many years the only economic activity.

In recent years we have learned that 40% of the vaquita’s population occurs outside the Reserve, concentrated around Rocas Consag Island.  Adapting policy to fit these new discoveries, in 2005 the government created a new vaquita refuge that would protect this area of high concentration.  This new restriction has not been welcomed by fishermen, but they have joined a new forum to negotiate a better future for their fisheries and the vaquita.

Known as Alto Golfo Sustentable (Sustainable Upper Gulf), this new forum involves fishermen from the three communities of the Upper Gulf Reserve,  the primary marketer of the Gulf’s shrimp (Ocean Garden) and non-governmental organizations, like CEDO.  The group has agreed on three basic goals: 1) to eliminate fishing-related mortality of vaquita; 2) improve the efficiency and sustainability of the shrimp fisheries; and 3) to eliminate illegal fishing practices.