Upper Gulf – Vaquita & Totoaba 2018-07-10T11:59:08+00:00

CEDO takes an ecosystem approach to conservation of these two endemic  and endangered species, whose primary habitat is encompassed in the Upper Gulf of California/Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve and Vaquita Refuge.  Through ecosystem-based and participatory fisheries management, education and other targeted activities we contribute to the conservation of these species and the ecosystem on which they and many fisheries depend.

With only 60 (2015 estimates) vaquitas, or less, roaming the Upper Gulf, the urgent challenge is to eliminate all gillnets in their area of distribution. Most fishermen from San Felipe and Golfo de Santa Clara have received compensation for two years (until spring 2017) to not fish in the extended Vaquita Refuge. CIRVA recommends that this ban be extended indefinitely. In 2016 much energy will go into finding and testing alternative gear for capturing shrimp, which has a high value and demand in the US market, and for other fish species that do not capture vaquita. A light trawl (RS-INP-MX) that is used with a panga has been tested and is proven to capture the prized blue shrimp. Commercial permits are already available for this gear, but only a few fishermen have been willing to give it a try. Change is hard and slow, and vaquita is running out of time. CEDO held a contest to get fishermen to generate their own ideas on new gear and will be part of the team led by INAPESCA to involve fishers in testing and monitoring this and other alternative gear.

One way to inspire fishermen to make the needed changes is through market incentives. By connecting responsible fishermen to responsible seafood markets it is possible to drive the system to change. There are many different certification schemes that provide guidelines on how to determine if a fishery is responsible (biologically, environmentally, and socially; see links). Responsibly caught fish needs to be tracked at all times – from where it is caught, all along its route, to its arrival at the end market, the dinner table. CEDO will work with interested fishermen to provide this kind of evidence using video camera technology.

International laws and pressure help ensure that endangered species do not enter the international market place. CITES is an international treaty prohibiting the trafficking of endangered species, such as totoaba. Many blame the Chinese market demand and high price paid for totoaba swim bladders, trafficked by organized crime groups in Mexico through the U.S. to China, as the primary cause of the decline of vaquita in recent years. The monetary incentive for fishermen to participate in this black market is great, whereas incentives to fish legally are few, and the negative incentives (punishment and fines) for illegal fishing are too light. Because the payoff is so high, fishermen are willing to risk getting caught. A set of balanced incentives is needed to drive the fishing system in the right direction. CEDO tried to create such a balance system while implementing Environmental Impact Studies for fishermen of the Upper Gulf Reserve from 2010 to 2014, but there were many challenges to achieving this.

Latest News on Vaquita


CEDO’s Approach

Vaquita Rediscovery

CEDO was one of the first organizations, governmental or otherwise, to focus on learning about and protecting the vaquita. Almost the day we opened our doors in Puerto Peñasco in 1980, we began finding dead vaquitas on the beaches at Puerto Peñasco and reported them to Mexico’s marine mammal experts at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM) and later to Dr. Lloyd Findley’s lab at the Instituto Tecnólogico de Monterey, Campus Guaymas. This “rediscovery” of vaquita focused the attention of the scientific community on this endemic marine mammal. From the time it was first discovered, described (from beached specimens at San Felipe) and given its scientific name, Phocoena sinus in 1958, very little had been learned about the behavior and habits of this animal. The CEDO field station became a home for researchers interested in learning more about vaquita.

Education and Outreach

It might be said that CEDO introduced vaquita to the communities of the Upper Gulf of California. We began outreach about vaquita, totoaba and the Upper Gulf in the 1990s, with programs directed to the general public, school children, teachers, and fishermen, and talks given throughout northwestern Mexico and southwestern U.S. CEDO’s regularly scheduled public tours that began in 1982 and continue to date, share information about these endangered species with the general public, and numerous publications distributed throughout the region have brought awareness to a binational community. A summary of some of the more formal efforts include:

  • 1990 to 1991 – Ecology at the Service of the Community: a community-wide awareness program at Puerto Penasco with navy and SEDESOL (23 schools, 10,000 people involved in clean-up)
  • 1992-1993 – “Preservation of Vaquita, Totoaba and their Environment: the Upper Gulf of California”, with Comité Vaquita y Totoaba, SEPESCA, 23 schools at Puerto Penasco.
  • 1994 – “The Biosphere Reserve: How can you Participate?” a program for 41 schools in three communities of the Upper Gulf with SEPESCA, Pronatura and Conservation International
  • 1998-99 – “Juntos: Lets Ge tour Feet Wet” – a field and classroom training program for teachers of the Upper Gulf of California, 6 module, 20 hours each for 75 teachers, with Fondo Mexicano para la Conservacion de la Naturaleza.
  • 3 Environmental Contests: Fishing for the Future
  • 2005-2010 “Youth for a Sustainable Upper Gulf of California” – a five year program curriculum involving over 5000 youth at Puerto Penasco, Golfo de Santa Clara and communities in the Corridor south to Puerto Lobos, teaching about sustainable fisheries and wetland conservation with field experience.

Select publications specifically related to vaquita(coming soon):

  • 1987 to 2001. CEDO News, a bilingual publication about the natural history of the northern Gulf of California, with a distribution of 3,000 copies per issue distributed throughout Mexico and the U.S.
  • “Voices from the Sea and Desert”, 3 publications of this newspaper with 9200 copies distributed in 5 communities sharing information about the Upper Gulf and Pinacate Reserves.
  • “The Vaquita of the Gulf of California”. A small book about vaquita conservation, published in Spanish and English and distributed throughout the region.
  • Publication of a curriculum of activities on vaquita and a workshop given to teachers at Puerto Penasco.
  • Vaquita Refuge brochure

Fishing Interactions

Entangled VaquitaAs we learned more about vaquita , concern grew about high mortality in fishing gear. Through interviews with fishermen, in 1988 CEDO made the first estimate of fishing-related vaquita mortality. We documented fisheries activities at Puerto Peñasco, fishing zones and effort, and fishermen’s interactions with vaquita. This stimulated a study with direct observations of vaquita mortality at Golfo de Santa Clara, done by students at ITESM, Guaymas. These and subsequent studies have shown that vaquita are caught in various fisheries that use gillnets, the rate of capture varies as fishing effort varies in fisheries that are changing. CEDO expanded its study of small-scale fisheries to learn more about this dynamic activity and potential interactions with vaquita.

Sustainable, alternative small-scale fisheries

Also known as coastal or artisanal fisheries, small-scale fisheries use small skiffs (pangas) with outboard motors. With relatively little investment in equipment, these fishermen can respond to fisheries resources that change with the tides, seasons, and species dynamics in the extreme environments of the Upper Gulf of California. As one fishery is depleted, new ones are exploited, and fishers adapt gear as is needed. The gillnet has proven to be one of the most efficient gears in the Upper Gulf where currents are very strong. Nets of different mesh sizes, lengths and depths are used to capture different species including shrimp, corvina, mackerel, gulf drum, and sharks and rays.

In 1998 CEDO published the book, Pescando Entremareas del Alto Golfo de California (Fishing Between the Tides of the Upper Gulf of California), which presented a comprehensive description of small-scale fisheries, describing in great depth where and when fishermen fish with different gear and documenting their perceptions on how to improve fisheries management. This seminal work marked the initiation of CEDO’s Sustainable Fisheries Program which conducts small-scale fisheries research and promotes active participation of fishermen in the co-management of their resources.

In its first decade and a half the program focused on diving fisheries, as they represent an important vaquita-free option that has no incidental catch. In collaboration with a local diving cooperative concerned about overexploitation of their fisheries and interested in better management, voluntary marine reserves were established and monitored, a management plan for rock scallop was produced and information was generated for management of black murex snail, octopus, blue crab, and other scallop species. When the new lucrative geoduck clam fishery emerged in the region, CEDO helped divers and other local fishers of the Upper Gulf obtain access to these alternative fisheries, reducing the use of gillnets. Turfs were established, resources were monitored, and quotas were assigned for extracting geoduck clam. We worked towards assuring sustainability in these fisheries as they offer a long-term alternative to the gillnet problem. Today the program takes an ecosystem approach to fisheries management.

Other alternative gear initiatives CEDO has led and supported, include:

  • alt gear mia 11An alternative gear contest was held by CEDO in 2013 to motivate participation of Upper Gulf fishermen to generate gear designs for shrimp and fish that do not impact vaquita. Ten proposals were received and designs improved upon in a workshop with gear experts. CEDO applied for permits to test winning designs and in collaboration with INAPESCA, Mexico’s fisheries research arm, these and other new designs will be tested in fall 2016.
  • The RS-INP-MX light trawl is the primary alternative gear approved by INAPESCA for replacing panga gillnet shrimp fisheries. Once commercial permits became available for this trawl gear, fishermen were required to work under an environmental impact study. CEDO conducted onboard bycatch studies of this fishery to propose mitigation measures for fishers to include in their impact study, which we also prepared and submitted to authorities for approval.
  • CEDO participated in a workshop led by WWF and INAPESCA with world bycatch and gear experts in May 2016 to develop a plan for accelerating the tests for alternative gear in the 2016 season. INAPESCA will take charge of this initiative and CEDO will help motivate and engage fishermen in the process to make the needed changes in their fishing activities.

Fisherman Participation: Environmental Impact Assesment

Since 2009 small-scale fishermen of the Upper Gulf Biosphere Reserve have been required to work under an environmental impact study. In 2010 fishermen from the three communities of the Reserve approached CEDO to help them develop and implement a study that would reduce impacts to fisheries and the ecosystem, including vaquita and totoaba. Since the impact study is required of fishermen, they have the burden to prove their compliance with the mitigation measures they proposed. The impact study was developed through a participatory process and four programs were implemented from 2010 to 2014:

  • Training and awareness program – the most comprehensive education program for fishermen of the Reserve ever implemented, with the objective of giving fishermen motivation and information for complying with regulations and mitigation measures.
  • Social participation program – formation of community advisory boards that were empowered to make decisions about how to implement their study and assure compliance.
  • Onboard observation program – designed to provide spatially explicit scientific information on bycatch and fishing effort to help design further mitigation measures.
  • Fisheries monitoring & logbook program – engaged fishermen in daily tracking of their fishing activities and bycatch in a logbook, which authorities could use to verify whether they had impact study permits. This had the potential to control open access to the Reserve by illegal fishers.

Management Forums

It takes many actors working together to meet the challenges for saving vaquita and totoaba: different government agencies, fishermen, environmental organizations, researchers, Mexican society and the international community. In the 35 years that CEDO has been engaged with vaquita, government actors have come and gone as administrations change, while researchers have generated new information that changes our knowledge about how to protect vaquita. Advances have been made when management councils brought all the actors together to discuss and find solutions to these complicated issues. CEDO has participated as a key contributor in the following management forums:

  • Advisory board of the Upper Gulf of California/Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve – helped develop management program, environmental education program and to disseminate these to communities in the region
  • Committee to Follow up and Evaluate the Vaquita Refuge (OES) – helped develop management program and led participatory process to identify indicators.
  • International Committee for the Recovery of Vaquita – as an invited guest, CEDO shared information on programs with fishers to inform recommendations
  • Consultative Committee for Ordering of the Corvina Fishery – helped in its formation and a member of the technical committee
  • Consultative Committee for the Ordering of the Panopea Fishery – helped in its formation and a member of the technical committee

Multi-Media & Resources

Additional links:

–          Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT), Mexico

–          IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group

–          Operation Milagro, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society


–          Can the Vaquita be Saved from Extinction? NOAA Fisheries Podcast

–          West Coast Regional Office, NOAA Fisheries Flicker

–          Vaquita.tv, Saving the Desert Porpoise, Video

–          New video by Wild Len (released 17 May), Souls of the Vermillion Sea, Video