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Historic Illegal Fishing Practices

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  • Pages: 10
  • Word count: 2331
  • Category: Fishing

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The Vaquita, Phocoena sinus, is endemic to the Gulf of California located between the mainland of Mexico and the Baja California Peninsula. This paper explores the historic illegal fishing practices, poorly managed fisheries, wildlife management, and deficient law enforcement that have driven the Vaquita to become Critically Endangered (Rojas-Bracho and Reeves 2013). This is followed by an analysis of the legislative actions of the Mexican government regarding the Vaquita and its protection, as well as the ineffectiveness of law enforcement against the transnational illegal wildlife trade.

This paper examines the impact of cultural demand and illegal fishing practices in the Gulf of California on the Vaquita population over the last three decades (Morzaria-Luna et al. 2013). In order to foster a sense of urgency about the rapid decline of the Vaquita, this paper will address possible short-term and long-term solutions that influence the species survival and spread awareness about the most endangered cetacean rapidly disappearing from the Southern California landscape.

The vaquita is currently the most endangered marine mammal and has been considered the world’s most endangered cetacean since the baiji (Lipotes vexillifer) became extinct sometime in the 2000s (Rojas-Bracho and Reeves 2013). In the 1980s only one species of small cetacean, the baiji, was listed as Endangered by the IUCN. Now forty years later the conservation status of small cetaceans lists 13 species, subspecies, or population of small cetaceans as Critically Endangered (CR) on the IUCN Red List (Brownell Jr. et al. 2019). Of these 13 small cetaceans, 11 are declared CR because of entanglement in gillnets, and researchers believe that bycatch is responsible for the extinction of the baiji and the inevitable extinction of the vaquita (Brownell Jr. et al. 2019). Scientists have recognized bycatch as a major threat to small cetaceans for almost half a century. Thirty years ago they called for increased conservation efforts for small cetaceans, but the lack of action and imminent threat of bycatch lead to the extinction of the baiji.

Many actions have been taken by Mexican authorities within the government to attempt to aid in vaquita recovery but few have been very effective. In 1996 the government of Mexico established a team of scientists called the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) which began giving the government recommendations to remove gillnets from the vaquita’s range in the northern part of the Gulf of California since its first meeting in 1997 (Rojas-Bracho and Reeves 2013). This did not happen. At their second meeting in 1999, CIRVA recommended that all forms of bycatch needed to be eradicated immediately and stressed the importance of supporting local fishing communities to make this happen (Rojas-Bracho and Reeves 2013). CIRVA’s third meeting was held because of the lack of action taken by the government since its previous recommendations. In 2004 scientists insisted that at the very least all gillnets be removed from the highest density of vaquita abundance in their range (Rojas-Bracho and Reeves 2013).

In response to CIRVA’s recommendations, the range of the vaquita was declared a Vaquita Refuge in 2005, areas were closed to certain fishing practices and gillnets were banned in areas with evident vaquita abundance (Rojas-Bracho and Reeves 2013). The Vaquita Refuge had many comprehensive goals and expectations of the program, all of which fell short or were mismanaged into oblivion. For example, the Ministry of Environment of Mexico granted US$1 million to the Baja California and Sonora governments which were misused for purposes unrelated to vaquita conservation and recovery efforts; local authorities used the funds to buy equipment for fishermen because there was no comprehensive plan stating how the funds should be spent as long as the money helped vaquitas or local fishing communities (Rojas-Bracho and Reeves 2013). The Refuge Program was meant to look good on paper and gain favor quickly, but the program was inefficiently managed until it was absorbed into a new comprehensive plan for vaquita recovery in 2008.

The Species Conservation Action Plan for Vaquita (PACE-Vaquita) was introduced in 2008 (Rojas-Bracho and Reeves 2013). By the time this happened, it was clear that the lack of past proper management in fishery systems and negligent enforcement of gillnet bans would slow down and inhibit the future progress of PACE-Vaquita. Conservation goals cannot be achieved when all parties are not working together. To the local fishing authorities and communities, the vaquita has no fiscal value and only causes a negative impact on the local economy (Rojas-Bracho and Reeves 2013). It took years for PACE-Vaquita to build the internal structure required to give compensation to fishermen to leave the profession, and it produced a short-term solution that resulted in a quick and large voluntary buy-out of fishermen’s gear from fishermen who possessed other skills and who were closed to retirement (Rojas-Bracho and Reeves 2013).

The failure of this initiative was evident when the government of Mexico called for the local fishing communities to join the buy-out program in 2010 and no one responded (Rojas-Bracho and Reeves 2013). Researchers believe that the failure of this initiative was due to its voluntary clause and think it would have been better to offer increased compensation to local fishing communities who joined earlier that would wane to a complete transition to alternative vaquita-safe fishing gear (Rojas-Bracho and Reeves 2013).

All literature points to one clear threat that has caused the vaquita to become Critically Endangered and now almost extinct over the last half-century and that threat is bycatch in gillnets (cite like all journals here I guess). An emergency gillnet ban was authorized by the Mexican government in May of 2015 that became permanent two years later, however, despite this, the decline of the vaquita has an estimated total population loss of 98.6% from 2011 to 2018 (Jaramillo-Legorreta et al. 2019). This data was retrieved every summer by passive acoustic detectors meant to monitor the vaquita population and the effectiveness of the gillnet ban from 2011 to 2018.

Passive acoustic detectors are used to monitor vaquita abundance trends because vaquitas produce a reliable stream of echolocation clicks, known as click chains, which reduce the need for complicated high-cost visual surveys that have been required to historically detect vaquitas because of their small population size and skittish behavior (Jaramillo-Legorreta et al. 2019). Although visual surveys are still used, the combined research efforts with acoustic surveying allow for more precise research and use of resources in more accurate locations of vaquita abundance in their range. It is also very important to note that passive acoustic detection equipment is still expensive, but much more cost-effective and accurate at tracking trends than visual surveys alone.

Analysis of acoustic data shows a decrease in vaquita echolocation clicks from 2016 to 2017 by 62.3% and from 2017 to 2018 by 70.1% which aligns with researchers’ assumptions that decreasing trends in vaquita abundance is reflected by annual changes in acoustic activity (Jaramillo-Legorreta et al. 2019). The starkest revelation that this research reveals is that vaquita abundance has astronomically decreased over time. So quickly in fact, that over the 7-year period of acoustic monitoring between 2011 and 2018 the vaquita population experienced a total decline of 99% (Jaramillo-Legorreta et al. 2019). The 2015 emergency ban has done little to counteract the presence of illegal fishing practices using gillnets. Researchers estimate that as of summer 2018, fewer than 19 vaquitas remain in the wild, and with consideration for the ineffectiveness of the gillnet ban, they estimate the mean number is closer to 9 vaquitas (Jaramillo-Legorreta et al. 2019).

The analysis of the passive acoustic monitoring data concludes that the emergency gillnet ban passed by the Mexican government in 2015 has failed to slow the decline of the vaquita within its range in the Vaquita Refuge. Gillnets have been used by coastal and freshwater fishing communities around the world since World War II because they were cheaper to produce and maintain than the cotton and hemp nets used previously (Brownell Jr. et al. 2019). Many populations of marine megafauna including sea turtles, sea birds, and marine mammals have significantly declined due to the disregard for bycatch in gillnets. Each year hundreds of thousands of cetaceans are killed in gillnets even though the threat of bycatch in this gear has been recognized for thirty years (Brownell Jr. et al. 2019). The failure to address this threat has caused the destruction of the very ecosystems that fishing communities rely on (Brownell Jr. et al. 2019).

The increased amount of illegal gillnet fisheries in the vaquita’s range is provoked by demand for the Critically Endangered totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) (Jaramillo-Legorreta et al. 2019). In 1975 the Mexican government closed the legal totoaba fishery as a result of overexploitation of the species, but due to ineffective enforcement illegal fishing for totoaba has resulted in a rapid decline of the vaquita (Brownell Jr. et al. 2019). The vaquita population was most likely already decreasing from bycatch in totoaba gillnets by the time researchers discovered the species in 1958. The allure of the totoaba comes from the remarkable value of its swim bladder on the black market in China for traditional medicinal practices; in 2018 the estimated value was US$46,000 per kilogram (Brownell Jr. et al. 2019). This accelerated desire for the totoaba began growing with great force once again in 2012 which was a driving factor for the temporary emergency ban Mexico enacted against gillnet fishing in 2015.

Due to non-compliance and a lack of capable enforcement, the vaquita has continued to perish in gillnets (Brownell Jr. et al. 2019). This lack of enforcement has continued through the 2019 fishing and totoaba spawning seasons despite improved enforcement and several initiatives to remove gillnets (Brownell Jr. et al. 2019). The Chinese import market for totoaba swim bladders has been strengthened by corruption in the Mexican government and massive loss of funds (Brownell Jr. et al. 2019).

The combined efforts of the Mexican government, conservation agencies such as the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and WWF-Mexico recovered 400 totoaba nets in the 2018 season in an area that CIRVA believed required increased enforcement because it contained overlap between the vaquita’s range and past recovery of totoaba gillnets (Jaramillo-Legorreta et al. 2019). Unfortunately, the amount of illegal fishing of the totoaba for 2018 and 2019, especially during the totoaba spawning season (which typically lasts 6 months), has grown to the point that the only way to manage fewer vaquita deaths related to bycatch in illegal totoaba gillnets is for the remaining vaquitas to be heavily protected during the totoaba spawning season (Jaramillo-Legorreta et al. 2019). The gillnet ban in local communities can only be supported through compliance which can only take place if the Mexican government initiates education and support programs to develop legal alternatives for fishers (Jaramillo-Legorreta et al. 2019).

Despite the 2015 ban, gillnet use in illegal and legal fishing practices continues with a heavy prevalence that is evidenced clearly by the constant and rash decline of the vaquita. The Refuge Program only banned gillnets with mesh sizes greater than 6 inches which are used to fish for sharks and rays, but the truth is that more vaquitas die each year in 2.5-inch shrimp gillnets which weren’t banned, along with the 2-inch sierra and mackerel nets and 17-inch chano nets which also cause annual fatalities (Rojas-Bracho and Reeves 2013). Researchers have determined that the conservation measures taken by the Mexican government and the PACE-Vaquita program have been insufficient in thwarting the near extinction of the vaquita (Rojas-Bracho and Reeves 2013). Enforcement is complicated when certain gillnets and fishing practices are allowed within the vaquita’s range and some are not, if the vaquita is going to have a chance of recovery within the next few years then all gillnetting must be banned and strictly enforced.

There is no simple solution for the immediate action that must take place to preserve the remaining vaquita population and other small cetaceans. However, the complete elimination of gillnets and the strictest enforcement of conservation zones would buy time for researchers to develop efficient plans that involve fishing communities and the improved management of fisheries and protected areas (Brownell Jr. et al. 2019). Researchers believe that the only way to save the few surviving individuals is to instate permanent enforcement in the vaquita’s range and active illegal gillnet removal during the totoaba spawning season (Jaramillo-Legorreta et al. 2019). Unless immediate action is taken, long-term action won’t matter once the vaquita is extinct. The development and funding for research to design alternative fishing gear that is attractively low-cost and easy enough for local fishing communities to adopt into their routines are extremely urgent if the vaquita population is going to be able to grow from its meager numbers (Brownell Jr. et al. 2019).

Examples of alternative fishing gears that can reduce dangers to small cetaceans are the cod pot which has been effective against gillnets for porpoises in the Baltic Sea and possible trowels that have yet to be developed and tested in the Gulf of California. Additionally, CIRVA has looked into a field-tested shrimp trawl that could remove the bycatch from shrimp gillnets and have been waiting on authorization from the Mexican government to produce them (Rojas-Bracho and Reeves 2013). Researchers have known that gillnets have threatened the vaquita for half a century and yet the vaquita will soon be extinct if proposed management methods are ineffective in the 2020 and 2021 totoaba spawning seasons.

The ineffective enforcement of gillnet bans and recovery plans for the case of the vaquita among small cetaceans is highlighted as one of the most poorly managed conservation strategies and researchers consider the vaquita a lost cause because of the lack of long-term prospects (Brownell Jr. et al. 2019). This lack of progress is because of resistance from fishing cooperatives, the ineffectiveness of Mexican fishery agencies to implement mandatory bans, and the substantial monetary benefit to illegally fish for totoaba (Brownell Jr. et al. 2019). Attention must be called to the detriment that bycatch in gillnets has not only on the vaquita but on most species, subspecies, or populations of small cetaceans and many other species of aquatic megafauna.

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