Mexican Expedition Sights Rare and Endangered Vaquita Porpoise

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  The vaquita, a porpoise that lives only in the upper Gulf of California, Mexico, is the world's smallest and rarest marine mammal. Photo credit: Paula Olson 2008.

SEMARNAT Press Release ( Click here) The previous link is a link to non-Federal government web site. Click to review NOAA Fisheries disclaimer

The mood on the R/V Ocean Starr was jubilation and relief as observers aboard the research vessel spotted two vaquitas, the world’s smallest and rarest marine mammal were spotted swimming in calm waters near the fishing village of San Felipe, Baja California, Mexico.  

The government of Mexico is conducting an intensive survey in the upper Gulf of California, Mexico, to find out how many vaquitas remain as an emergency ban takes effect to save the critically endangered species. The number of vaquitas has rapidly declined to fewer than 100 individuals as a result of accidental drowning in gillnets. The population has been declining since the species was discovered fewer than 60 years ago because of entanglement in gillnets set for shrimp and fish. But the decline has accelerated in recent years because of the resurgence of illegal gillnetting for totoaba, a large and endangered fish targeted for its swim bladder which is prized in China..

The current survey for vaquita is a collaborative effort between Mexico and the United States (as were previous surveys in 1997 and 2008). The survey design has involved the world’s top experts to get the most precise estimate possible of this very rare animal. “It truly is like finding a needle in a haystack,” said Dr. Barbara Taylor, the U.S. Chief Scientist. “We knew vaquitas remained because we are hearing them, but seeing them today is a great relief,” said Mexican Chief Scientist Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho. “I did not want to experience another extinction,” said Taylor who also a chief scientist on the 2006 survey that failed to find any Chinese River dolphins. . 

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Vaquita observers on “big eye” binoculars capable spotting vaquita more than 3 km (1.9 miles) away. Photo credit: Barbara Taylor. 

Scientists documented the perilous state of vaquita through an innovative scientific method that uses acoustic detectors to monitor the animals. Since their deployment, these detectors have provided about 3,000 days of continuous listening every year for the little porpoise that echolocates to find its food in the muddy waters of the northern Gulf of California, Mexico, the sole habitat of the species. The detectors indicate that the population has declined about 30 percent per year from 2011 and 2014, a situation so grave that emergency actions were needed to save Mexico’s endemic porpoise..  

Earlier this year, the Mexican government put into place an emergency ban of gillnets within the range of vaquitas, the first large-scale ban of artisanal gillnetting in the world. The ban was coupled with a compensation package to the fishermen and others reliant on the fishing industry. In hard economic times, the Mexican government is paying $37 million per year to help save the species. President Peña Nieto rolled out the strategy to ban gillnets that includes a new Navy enforcement program in April in San Felipe, one of the two small fishing towns affected by the ban. In waters that usually would have thousands of kilometers of net set for the start of shrimp season, not a single gillnet has been seen. “Enforcement and the cooperation of fishermen has been critical for the ban,” says Rafael Pacchiano, Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) and strong supporter of vaquita conservation efforts.s.

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  The acoustic team prepares to deploy one of the acoustic monitoring devices. Photo: Barbara Taylor.

The survey includes both a visual team working searching for vaquita from the R/V Ocean Starr in waters more than 60 feet deep, or 20 meters, and the use of passive acoustic detectors located in shallower waters. An overlapping area will allow for calibration between the visual and acoustic methods. To develop as precise an estimate as possible, the survey is using the same ship that conducted surveys in 1997 and 2008 that provided two previous abundance estimates for the species..

The visual team uses six pairs of high-powered binoculars to scan for the small porpoises that are visible only in very calm seas. The acoustic effort involves 135 detectors placed in a grid. Both visual and acoustic scientists will work from September 26 through December 3, 2015. Results of the new abundance estimate for the species is expected in the spring of 2016..

For weekly reports from the field and more information about the expedition:

Expedición Vaquita 2015 The previous link is a link to non-Federal government web site. Click to review NOAA Fisheries disclaimer (Spanish)

Vaquita Expedition 2015 (English)

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#Vaquita, #VaquitaMarina, #VaquitaExpedition2015, #ExpedicionVaquita2015, #SEMARNAT, #NOAAFisheries

View expedition photos on Flickr ( click here)

Read more:
Constata Titular de Semarnat presencia de vaquita marina en Alto Golfo de California – SEMARNAT The previous link is a link to non-Federal government web site. Click to review NOAA Fisheries disclaimer

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