New vaquita short film

Vaquita - Saving the Desert Porpoise - 2013

Today, we are launching a the new Vaquita video at the Society for Marine Mammology Conference in Dunedin, New Zealand where some of the world's top marine mammal research scientists are coming together for one week. This year's theme is "Marine Mammal Conservation: Science Making a Difference"

My journey to document the story of the Vaquita porpoise in Mexico, a marine mammal on the brink of extinction, started seven years ago in of all places - Australia.

I just done a telephone interview with marine scientist Bob Pitman of NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center. He had just completed an expedition in China to search for the Baiji in the Yangtze River. Without much fanfare or media attention, this large marine mammal was declared 'functionally extinct', disappearing due to human activity.

Five years ago, I was in the Upper Gulf of California, Mexico with researchers from NOAA and INE Mexico. My role was to try to obtain footage and photographs of Vaquita - something most people, including our funders, could not believe could be done. With the help of the whole science team from INE and NOAA, we were very lucky to prove people wrong.

However, their numbers are still declining. Their population is now estimated to be less than 200 animals. Gillnets - nearly invisible fishing nets set for shrimp - are still being cited as the primary cause of their mortality.

The video is in English and Spanish - Watch the spanish version here

A was recently published by Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho and Randall Reeves entitled Vaquitas and gillnets: Mexico’s ultimate cetacean conservation challenge (Download PDF). This is an excellent summary of the issues surrounding the Species Conservation Action Plan for Vaquita (PACEVaquita) - a voluntary community fisheries buyout program implemented in 2008, its failures, and the immediate challenges Vaquita face in the future. The following is an excerpt:

  • "Unfortunately, valuable time was lost as officials first needed to bring order to a poorly managed fishery management system. Also, the voluntary nature of fisherman participation and the chronic deficiency of enforcement have limited PACE’s effectiveness. Although efforts to implement the plan probably slowed the vaquita’s decline, the goal of eliminating gillnets (and thus most vaquita bycatch) by 2012 was not reached."

Earlier this year I travelled to visit WWF in Mexico City, interviewing Omar Vidal and Enrique Sanjurjo. They discussed the state of the PACEVaquita conversation program and a possible conservation solution - an alternative fishing gear to gillnets. A light trawl was field-tested and shown to be efficient at capturing shrimp. Their hope is that such ‘vaquita-safe’ trawls are suitable for replacing gillnets in the shrimp fishery and potentially useful the fin-fish fishery. While initial testing looks positive, the jury is still out whether these are truly suitable long-term and whether this gear will be embraced by local fishermen in time.

Vaquita is a shy, illusive porpoise. Many have argued, like the Baiji, it does not have much value to the economy of its surrounding human neighbours. It is an iconic species to Mexico, yet a symbol of a nature's struggle against its demise. I have been lucky to see vaquita in the wild, even just for a momentary glimpse. Perhaps by testing, and learning from failed, conservation efforts, is the development of a greater toolset for sustainability for both the wild and us.

So, this new video encapsulates the story of Vaquita in nine succinct minutes. It combines the documentary film following Bob Pitman discussing the recent extinction of the Yangtze River Dolphin in China, the 2008 international scientific expedition searching for the elusive animal, and meets local fishermen and families whose survival are dependent on the sea. New additions include, interviews with WWF Mexico about a potential solution, a couple of local fishermen discussing the light-trawl nets, and a new visualisation showing how they work.

However, has really time run out on vaquita now?

Rojas-Bracho and Reeves feel that any solutions, will come from learning from the past and recommend an immediate path forward in the case to conserve vaquita as -

  1. funding to manufacture the new trawls,
  2. funding and support for the transition by fishermen from gillnets to the trawls,
  3. a serious and sustained commitment to enforcement,
  4. monitoring the operation of the new trawl fishery to ensure that it does not have any serious, unforeseen environmental consequences, and;
  5. identifying, or if necessary developing, and makingavailable alternative ‘vaquita-safe’ gear for finfish fisheries.

They sum up the situation in a very sobering way -

  • "We know exactly why the vaquita is disappearing, we know what needs to be done to arrest the decline, and, importantly, there are signs of real progress in finding a practical way of doing it. Yet the challenge remains of moving quickly and decisively before it is too late."

I could not agree more. I hope you enjoy the short and I look forward to reading your comments.

Special thanks go out to many people over the years including Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho of INE Mexico, Bob Pitman, Lisa Ballance, Jay Barlow, Barb Taylor, Sarah Mesnick, Tim Gerrodette, Tom Jefferson and Paula Olson of NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center; Tim Ragen of the United States Marine Mammal Commission; Mark Spaulding, Ocean Foundation; Marisla Foundation; Armando Jarmillo of INE, Jonathan Gordon of Univ. of St. Andrews, and everyone on the David Starr Jordan who made expedition vaquita an unforgettable experience. WWF Mexico contributed in brining this updated version to life, especially Omar Vidal, Enrique Sanjurjo and Daniel Bravo.

Some recent publications

  • Rojas-Bracho, L. & Reeves, R. (2013) Vaquitas and gillnets: Mexico’s ultimate cetacean conservation challenge. Inter Research, Endangered Species Research.
  • Gerrodette, T., Rojas-Bracho, L. (2011) Estimating the success of protected areas for the vaquita, Phocoena sinus. Marine Mammal Science.
  • Morzaria-Luna, H.N., Ainsworth, C.H., Kaplan, I.C., Levin P.S., & Fulton, E.A. (2012) Exploring Trade-Offs between Fisheries and Conservation of the Vaquita Porpoise (Phocoena sinus) Using an Atlantis Ecosystem Model. PLoS ONE 7(8): e42917.