A Voice for Vaquita

What a week it has been! We posted the images and video of the vaquita sighting and created a slight online ‘feeding frenzy’. As with any breaking story, some of it gets people’s attention, and some of it goes totally unnoticed. The footage we obtained on the October 20th sighting was big news in the science community and not so good news for others. It was hard evidence that the animals are still there. Everyone I have interviewed is breathing a collective sigh of relief. It is difficult enough to try to sell the concept of the vaquita to the local community, some of whom believe it doesn't exist. Now, there are some good quality images to help local communities learn about their special little Mexican porpoise.

While there have been great days for sightings from all researchers in the area, we are only half way through the expedition. What the current population of vaquita is, and how that will affect conservation strategies and management efforts in the northern gulf, are major questions on many people’s minds. The answer will have to wait until the conclusion of the science expedition in late November.

I have interviewed many people from the realm of vaquita science and conservation over recent weeks. One person’s name you often see in the press and in scientific papers is Lorenzo Rojas Bracho. Lorenzo has been a 'voice for vaquita' for many years. He is the co-coordinator for Marine Mammal Research and Conservation at the Instituto Nacional de Ecología (INE), in Ensenda, Mexico. INE are leading the current scientific survey along with NOAA Fisheries, Southwest Fisheries Science Center in the United States.

I spoke to Lorenzo at length about vaquita research methodology and science-based solutions. Many are praising his recommendations, yet they are viewed as controversial by others in local communities. He is redefining what a ‘scientist’ is in an era full of critical conservation issues for marine mammals. For vaquita, his view is clear - Mexico can reverse the impending extinction of the vaquita, but it must take care of the fishermen at the same time.

The following is a selection of rough cuts from my interview with Lorenzo.


Watch a conservation with scientist Lorenzo Rojas Bracho, the coordinator of research and conservation of marine mammals at the Instituto Nacional de Ecologia in Ensenada, Mexico and filmmaker CHRIS JOHNSON. They discuss the Vaquita porpoise.


This is the week I took time away from searching for Vaquita, to learn more about the politics this little mammal is generating. Because its estimated population is at a critical level (150 animals), and due to free trade agreements between Mexico, United States and Canada, the conservation of this animal does not only fall on the responsibility of local and state government, but within an international coalition called the Commission for Environmental Cooperation (CEC). CEC encourages these three countries to adopt a continental approach to the conservation of wild flora and fauna.

Through the CEC, the NORTH AMERICAN CONSERVATION ACTION PLAN (NACAP) initiative for vaquita, met in Mexicali, Mexico. We are now at the end of year 1 of a two-year immediate plan to pull the vaquita back from the brink of extinction. NACAP is a group made up of government, NGOs, industry groups, scientists and local groups (also commonly referred to as ‘stakeholders’ by media and persons attending)

The aim of NACAP is to tackle conservation challenges in the region. Because these countries define the Vaquita as ‘highly threatened', this co-operative group steps in to deal with these management issues. In the recently published NACAP document you can learn more about the principles and their approach to the conservation of vaquita.

Download the NACAP document in PDF format.

An except from the report including the following conservation-related elements shall be integrated into the structure of each NACAP:

  • Threats prevention, control, and mitigation
  • Education and Outreach
  • Information sharing and networking
  • Capacity Building and Training
  • Research Gaps
  • Use of Innovative approaches and tools.


The meeting had been cancelled a couple of times over recent months, and included a last minute change from Puerto Penasco to Mexacali, an industrial city on border of Mexico and the United States. There were rumors that fishermen we going to protest at the meetings in this fishing town, but in the end, it was announced that the presidential plane flying in from Mexico City could not land on the airstrip in Puerto Penasco.

NOAA Fisheries scientist Barb Taylor presenting at the NACAP meeting.

We departed on the Tuesday the 28th at dawn. I followed scientists Jay Barlow, Barb Taylor and Anna Hall through the lonely Baja desert north to Mexicali. As I drove through the desert I wondered about the questions I would ask, but really spent most of my time repeating – ‘I hope this is covered in my budget!’

I was intrigued to see how conservation efforts were progressing at the end of the all important ‘year 1’. In a key paper published in 2007, scientists gave the vaquita two years before its numbers slipped to a level that the population could not bounce back from.

My hope was to film the NACAP meeting where the President of Mexico was going to arrive and give a big speech about vaquita conservation. In the end, the President was a no show and the Minister for Environment gave a speech in front of media, attendees, and a group of high school students who filled up all of available seats. The three flags of Mexico, US and Canada floated in the rafters as a passive symbol of a complex unity.

So what happens at the end of multinational meetings like these? It is time to eat. At the end of all of the speeches and presentations, two busses drove guests across town to a Chinese restaurant. Apparently in Mexicali, there is a substantial Chinese population, and Chinese food is the local equivalent of what Mexican food is to people in the United States and Canada – an alternative to the local cuisine to spice up life for a brief moment. The restaurant was a giant hall full of long tables of roughly 40 people each.

The next day was a technical meeting at the Crowne Plaza hotel with all of the key players involved in conservation management, fisheries buyout, scientific research and fundraising.

On Wednesday, scientists, conservationists and managers crammed into a small conference room in the Crown Plaza Hotel. Hans Herman of CEC chaired the meeting. Over the weeks, everyone I have met has been very kind. People allowed me to record events with my oversized video camera, opening up and sharing opinions and observations about how vaquita affects their lives. Hans was receptive to me filming a couple of the presentations in the morning. However, he wanted me to leave the room when the real discussions started to allow stakeholders to talk openly and honestly without “media scrutiny”. There were issues that needed to be discussed so a unified message could be officially released.

This often happens to me at these types of meetings. On one hand I totally understand it. It is the one chance in the year for people to get together and talk openly, share data, information and anecdotes. Most of the time, people in science and conservation deal with each other via email, and less these days, by phone. So it is vital to communicate face to face especially over an issue as hot as vaquita conservation.

However, there was no other “media” there lined up to break the story. And, why would there be? Media often have extremely tight deadlines tempered by extremely tight budgets. This was not a newsworthy meeting. I am lucky to receive a grant to spend 6 weeks in Mexico writing and documenting the people and issues surrounding the vaquita. Sometimes, I feel like a crazed filmmaker desperately wanting to be invited to the party, but often left on my own without a date.

Everyone had laptops there connected to the internet around the table. If someone wanted to, they could have blogged about it, they could have recorded it, or emailed press. At these meetings I always find attendees checking their email during presentations. All of this funding to bring together the experts, and some were chatting on skype.

There were presentations about “YEAR 1” of the fisheries buyout. If you read the New York Times (which I do most days), then you would think that major NGOs had the issues completely under control. Fishermen are being bought out; the problem is going away, success is imminent.

New York Times article - "Mexico Pays Fishermen to Help Save a Species".

However, this is a complex issue…extremely complex. There is the “buyout” (where a fishermen sells his license, engine, and boat for an amount of money), a “rent-out” (where a fishermen receives a sum to keep his gear, boat and nets out of the water for a year), and a “switch-out” (where a fishermen keeps his boat, license, but uses ‘alternative gear). The problem with the “switch-out”, is that gillnets are cheap and effective, and the alternatives are proving to be more challenging to both use and sell to fishermen than was first expected.

AND, there are reports that fishers who are part of the “rent-out” are teaming up with others in a cooperative agreement and fishing together. For example, one fisher has the license, the other has the boat and they decide - "hey let’s fish together"...

More importantly, not all gillnet fishermen using pangas are licensed anyway. Illegal fishing is a major issue and authorities do not know how many pangas are on the water (even though this is changing). So there is a major effort to license every gillnet boat on the region. However, this does not cover the many large shrimp trawlers in the Gulf of California. The buyout plan only affects the local gillnetters.

In Mexico, Vaquita is changing the definition of what ‘conservation’ means. Conservation is attempting to redefine life for many local fishermen and communities in an area where shrimp is akin to oil in a sea encompassed by desert. Alternative livelihoods are few and far between. Just buying, renting, or switching is going to create additional social challenges to this region that may be outside the bounds of the NACAP.

Today is my last day in San Felipe. Tomorrow I travel to El Golfo de Santa Clara to learn more about what fishermen think and feel about an animal that is redefining their lives.

Shrimp Trawler. Photo - Chris Johnson