Vaquita Sighted Near Fishing Boat

Photo Credit: CONANP/Museo de la Ballena/Sea Shepherd
Photo Credit: CONANP/Museo de la Ballena/Sea Shepherd

Published Oct 26, 2019 5:33 PM by The Maritime Executive

Scientists, supported by conservation patrol vessels, have sighted one vaquita porpoise (Phocoena sinus) along with dozens of fishing skiffs within the 150 square kilometer "zero tolerance" area of the federally protected Vaquita Refuge in Mexico's Biosphere Reserve of the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River.

The skiffs, setting and retrieving prohibited gillnets mainly for shrimp, chano and corvina fish, numbered over 70 altogether and were sighted in groups of up to 28 at a time by crews and scientists on board the vessels Farley Mowat and Narval during the morning of October 17. 

The vaquita is the world's most endangered marine mammal. This latest photograph of a live vaquita, with a fishing skiff right behind it, was taken in the same area where Sea Shepherd found a dead vaquita caught in a gillnet last March. 

Fishing inside the refuge is banned. Subsidies given to the fishermen by the Mexican Government to compensate for this measure ceased to be disbursed 11 months ago. Ramon Franco, President of the Cooperativas Ribereñas Rubio Castro from San Felipe, Baja California said: “We want the United Nations to know that the fishing sector in our community went out fishing without respecting agreements or protected areas as a result of the lack of attention and dialogue the federal Government has given to this issue. It is responsible for what could happen in this community.”

The result is hundreds of pangas have been returning to sea. “We are between a rock and a hard place: between organized crime and the problems derived from illegal activities in the area, and pressure towards the commercial fishing sector by the government. Those most affected are our fishing organizations that stick to the rules. Those who most benefit are the illegal fishers,” said Carlos Tirado, Leader of the Federación Regional de Sociedades Cooperativas Pescadores de la Reserva de la Biosfera, S.C, de R.L de CV. “Immediate attention from the President needs to be given to this matter.”

Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, head of marine mammal research at Mexico's National Commission on Protected Areas (CONANP) and co-chief scientist of the current expedition, highlighted the importance of the sighting: “Under the current circumstances, the most important piece of information right now is that there are still vaquitas surviving… hopefully we can track the lives of these few fit individuals and protect them exactly where they are. These type of expeditions are key to the photo ID effort, they provide the best option to guide protection measures.”

The expedition to spot vaquitas is coordinated by CONANP with the collaboration of Museo de la Ballena y Ciencias del Mar and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society as well as the participation of researchers from the Autonomous University of Baja California Sur (UABCS) and the U.S., and the ongoing support of the Mexican Navy (SEMAR). The first leg of the expedition generated three sightings of vaquita pairs, on August 19, 20 and on September 3, in the waters off San Felipe, Baja California. The second leg of the survey runs between October 14 and 28.

Around 20 vaquitas are believed to be left alive.