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La Vaquita Marina: Has Time Run Out?

La Vaquita Marina: Has Time Run Out?

    In the coming months you may hear a lot more about the most endangered cetacean on the planet

Dead Vaquita caught in gill net near San Felipe Northern Gulf of California

La Vaquita Marina (Phocoena sinus). This smallest of all porpoise is endemic to the upper Gulf of California. Over the last 5 years the Mexican government has spend up words of 20 million dollars to try and save this species. Is it too little too late? 

    That is the question I have pondered for several years now. I started researching this story back in March when I visited local scientist and long time San Carlos resident Lloyd Findley. Lloyd gave me plenty of home work. Of all the studies he gave me the one that most caught my eye was, A combined visual and acoustic estimate of 2008 abundance, and change in abundance since 1997 for the vaquita.  The lead scientist on the study was Shannon Rankin. Just a few days ago as I was reading the study I received an email from Rankin who works for NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, located at Southwest fisheries Science Center in La Jolla California. Talk about incredible timing. It appears the Mexican government wishes to fund another study identical to the one that she headed in 08 and they are in need of a sail boat. Shannon was interested in our 36 foot trimaran Windsplitter as possibly being that boat. 

Range of distribution of La Vaquita

    With the extinction of the Baiji, the Yangtze river dolphin, officially confirmed the vaquita now takes its place as the most endangered cetacean on the planet. The primary culprit for the decline of the species is the gill net and while the government has already bought out almost one third of all fishermen in the area it would seem like it has not been enough. 

    In 1993 Mexico, under pressure from conservationists, established the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve. It was at the time thought to cover most of the vaquitas main habitat.

Early 20th century totoaba fishing
Early 50’s totoaba fishing

Within years of the creation of the reserve it was discovered that over half the population of vaquita lived well south of the reserve boundary. Why it took until 2005 for the Mexican government to expand the reserve is anyone’s guess. What is clear though is that Mexico has not taken conservation of vaquitas serious until very recently. With the new president of Mexico Enrique Pena Nieto at the helm it will not be long before we know how serious this new administration will be in regards to conservation of the vaquita. Enrique Pena Nieto has placed Guillermo Sanchez Aguilar in charge of CONAPESCA, the department of Mexican fisheries. Mr. Aguilar is going to have his hands full this summer and it will not be just vaquitas that are going to be in need of attention. The sport fishing industry will be watching very closely to see if the laws protecting billfish and dorado are going to be enforced this year or will it be business as usual for conservation of the Gulf of California.

totoaba vaquita
This picture says it all, I have linked it to the original article

While the damning of the Colorado River does not seem to have had a large impact on the declining population of vaquita the same can not be said for totoaba. Totoaba populations most likely were affected by the loss of fresh water into the upper gulf, non the less populations have been slowly rising over the last decade and ironically that is most likely what will lead to the ultimate extinction of vaquita. What is killing vaquita now in 2013 is the expanding illegal totoaba fishery that is experiencing a resurgence in the upper gulf. Here is an excellent story by Gene Kira on the history of the totoaba fishery that started in the 1920’s. Back then totoaba were mostly harvested for their air bladders and shipped off to asian markets. Sounds a lot like the problem we have had with shark population declines here as well. It seems now the fate of the vaquita and totoaba are permanently entwined. If we do not stop the illegal fishing of totoaba immediately the vaquita are certainly doomed. 

Just this week I was informed by two different sources that over 6 million dollars of illegal totoaba air bladders were confiscated by U.S. customs agents up north. Here is the story from the San Diego Union Tribune. What this article fails  to include is the connection between totoaba fish bladders and vaquita that drown in gill nets for the sake of Asian fertility. 

The below pictures were given to me by some friends of mine at Profepa back in 2008. 

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