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Scientists say current plan to protect the vaquita will not save the species

  • Between 2011 and 2015, the vaquita population decreased by an estimated 80 percent as a result of bycatch in gillnets set illegally to capture totoaba. There are believed to be fewer than 60 left.
  • After the White House meeting, President Nieto agreed to permanently ban gillnets in the vaquita’s range (an emergency 2-year ban was adopted in May 2015), in addition to other measures.
  • But a team of Mexican and American researchers determined that, while the temporary gillnet ban now in place and the proposal to switch to new trawl gear will likely alleviate the immediate bycatch problem threatening the vaquita, the current conservation plan “neglects local livelihoods, the traditions and heritage of the community, the ecological integrity of the area and increases dependence on fishing subsidies.”

This past July, U.S. President Barack Obama hosted Mexico’s President Peña Nieto at the White House to discuss bilateral cooperation on a range of issues, including several environmental matters. The meeting culminated in a proposal for, among other things, a series of measures aimed at protecting the critically endangered vaquita marina porpoise.

Back in 1997, there were believed to be as many as 570 of the porpoises in the upper Gulf of California, the body of water that separates Baja California from mainland Mexico and the species’ only known range. Conservationists say there are now fewer than 60 vaquita (Phocoena sinus) left in the wild, however, which is why it is often referred to as “the world’s most endangered cetacean species.”

The vaquita population has been driven down so precipitously thanks to commercial shrimp trawlers and fishing gear called gillnets, which the oxygen-breathing mammals become entangled in, causing them to drown. But the real threat to the remaining vaquita population is China’s demand for swim bladders from a giant Mexican fish called the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi). Between 2011 and 2015, the vaquita population decreased by an estimated 80 percent as a result of bycatch in gillnets set illegally to capture totoaba.

At the White House meeting, President Nieto agreed to permanently ban gillnets in the vaquita’s range (an emergency 2-year ban was adopted in May 2015). Presidents Obama and Nieto also agreed on a variety of collaborative measures, such as cracking down on the illegal totoaba trade, developing alternative fishing gear to gillnets that won’t result in the entanglement of vaquita, and removing any illegal and derelict fishing gear from the vaquita’s habitat in the upper Gulf of California.

But Andrew Frederick Johnson, a marine biologist with Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California, San Diego, argues in a recent piece for The Conversation that these measures will not save the vaquita.

“Although eliminating vaquita bycatch is crucial for the species’ survival,” Johnson writes, “ignoring economic losses, local livelihoods and new ecological problems related to trawl impacts” show that all the two governments have really committed to are short-term measures that are unlikely to pull the vaquita back from the brink of extinction.

Johnson is a co-author of a study published this week in the journal Conservation Letters by a team of researchers from Mexico and the U.S. The team determined that, while the temporary gillnet ban now in place and the proposal to switch to new trawl gear will likely alleviate the immediate bycatch problem threatening the vaquita, the current conservation plan “neglects local livelihoods, the traditions and heritage of the community, the ecological integrity of the area and increases dependence on fishing subsidies.”

Trawl gear is more easily avoided by cetaceans than gillnets, but it’s also more expensive. The researchers estimate that it will cost an additional subsidy of $8.5 million per year to maintain local revenues, due to lower catch rates, higher fuel consumption, and the cost of actually switching from gillnets to trawl gear.

Then there are the significant risks of the new trawl gear itself. “The impacts of trawl gear to seafloor species are significantly greater than those posed by gillnets because they are dragged along sea floors, reducing productivity in many shelf sea ecosystems and negatively affecting community compositions and diversity,” Johnson wrote in his article for The Conversation. He and his colleagues found that the trawl gear caught 2.7 times as much unusable bycatch as gillnets, including invertebrates and small juvenile fishes of economically valuable species — all of which had to be discarded.

“Our results show that the proposed gear switch intervention can be considered another ‘quick-fix’ intervention in the history of the vaquita conservation agenda that urgently needs long-term goals that incorporate ecological, economic, and human wellbeing,” the authors of the study write.

In order to achieve long-term protection of the vaquita, the authors argue that the support of local communities is crucial — yet local fishers are often excluded from the process of designing management plans in the Upper Gulf of California, and the proposal by Obama and Nieto does not mention them whatsoever.

“The impact of these management actions has polarized opinion among local communities and created a large rift between the fishing and conservation sectors,” the researchers write in the study. “This divide has been worsened by the exclusion of fishers from the formation of the new conservation measures, including the design of the new government trawls and gear tests, while expecting collaboration for data collections using this gear. The majority of knowledge used in the management and conservation of the [Upper Gulf of California] has come from western science and has had a disproportionate effect on social, cultural, and economic structures locally, wasting significant, useful information that the fishers’ knowledge can provide for the design of management decisions.”

Johnson lists a number of proposals for building the kind of long-term, collaborative conservation approach that he and his colleagues say is needed. For instance, there are few alternative job opportunities for fishers in the region, meaning that external investment to spur the development of infrastructure such as roads that connect fishers to new markets and processing facilities would be key, as it would provide new employment opportunities and increased returns on declining fish catches.

New educational opportunities are also required, Johnson says, including programs to inform fishers about the consequences of unsustainable fisheries practices and alternative livelihoods such as tourism or the service industry.

“With one foot of the vaquita firmly in the grave, now does not seem to be the time to make somewhat incomplete decisions regarding the survival of the vaquita, the health of the Upper Gulf of California’s ecosystem and the social well being of the families that live in this remote area of Mexico,” according to Johnson.

A pair of vaquitas swims together. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

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