Storied Seafood: Vaquita Conservation
Mexican Fishermen Work to Save an Endangered Species
The Aquarium’s Seafood for the Future (SFF) program has launched a new series called Storied Seafood. The first edition tells the story of Mexican fishermen and their efforts to save the vaquita in the northern Gulf of California.
Fishermen working in this area can have the greatest, most immediate impact on the vaquita’s survival by using alternative fishing gear that does not harm vaquitas. The Storied Seafood website features profiles of and interviews with the fishermen, a timeline of vaquita conservation efforts, background information on the vaquita and its population decline, and an image gallery. The profiles and interviews are available in both English and Spanish language versions.
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© Thomas A. Jefferson/VIVA Vaquita
The vaquita, a small porpoise found only in the northern Gulf of California in Mexico, is the world’s most endangered marine mammal, and is on the verge of extinction due to accidental entanglement in gillnets. It has the smallest geographical range of any marine mammal. Vaquitas are found in small groups of one to three individuals; often just a mother-and-calf pair.
Vaquitas are endangered because they accidentally entangle and drown in fishing nets, called gillnets, used for fish or shrimp. Vaquita deaths have increased recently due to entanglement in gillnets set for totoaba, a large fish—also endangered. Totoaba is harvested illegally for its swim bladder, which is prized in China.
Fewer than 60 vaquitas remain, and the species will soon be extinct unless the mortality in fishing nets is eliminated. To save the vaquita, scientists agree that the only solution is to totally eliminate fishing with gillnets within vaquita habitat. A group of innovative Mexican fishermen are responding to the urgent need for action. Working with scientists, non-governmental agencies, and gear experts, these fishermen are developing new types of non-entangling fishing gear.
The type of gillnets used in the northern Gulf of California are inexpensive and easy to use, and it is a challenge to find replacements that are ecologically and economically sustainable. Effective management and the use of environmentally responsible fishing gear means healthy ecosystems and sustainable communities.
A group of forward-thinking fishermen are leading the way in their community and providing an example for the rest of the world. Their stories give great hope that it may be truly possible to switch from gillnets to alternative fishing gears that do not endanger vaquitas and that support new and sustainable livelihoods.
Image by Paula Olson for NOAA Fisheries
Mother and Calf
These fishermen have been collaborating with government agencies and conservation organizations to design, test, and develop new fishing gears that do not endanger vaquitas.
These fishermen have been working with Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change to deploy and retrieve acoustic monitoring devices throughout the vaquita’s range, helping scientists to estimate the population status of the vaquita and remove derelict fishing gear.
They also work with Mexico’s National Fisheries Institute, World Wildlife Fund Mexico and NOAA Fisheries to test and develop various types of new, non-entangling fishing gear, such as lightweight trawls and traps. Their efforts were recently recognized when they were awarded the Conservation Merit Prize by the international Society for Marine Mammalogy for their role in the first large-scale gillnet ban and alternative gear development effort to save a marine mammal species from extinction.
Although their stories are unique, the problems the fishermen of the northern Gulf of California face are shared by coastal fishing communities around the world. Each year, hundreds of thousands of marine mammals are estimated to be killed in gillnets and other entangling fishing gear around the globe.
Marine mammals are important to healthy ecosystems, and seafood is a source of healthy protein that plays an important role in an environmentally responsible food supply. It is imperative that fishermen around the world adopt best management practices and use environmentally responsible fishing gear to support healthy people, marine mammal populations, and ocean ecosystems.
Image by Alex Espinosa
The range of the vaquita coincides with most of the Upper Gulf of California and Delta of the Colorado River Biosphere Reserve, one of Earth’s most extraordinary marine habitats supporting a diversity of fishes, birds, marine reptiles, and marine mammals.
Image by Alex Espinosa
The highly productive waters of the Gulf are also excellent for fishing, producing fish, many species of invertebrates, including some of the world’s most valuable shrimp, sold for both domestic and U.S. consumption. Fishing is a major source of income for the local communities of San Felipe and El Golfo de Santa Clara.
Vaquita Conservation was developed by SFF in collaboration with NOAA Fisheries Southwest Fisheries Science Center. Funding provided for this program allowed SFF to hire a professional photographer to document fishermen working to protect vaquita with alternative gear in Baja.
Photographer Alex Espinosa was born in Mexico City and has worked as a photographer since 2000. His work focuses on Latin America and documents social issues through documentary projects, reportage, and portraits.
Vaquita Conservation is the first in the Storied Seafood series that will highlight various perspectives and efforts throughout the seafood supply chain to address specific ocean conservation issues associated with seafood. It will provide a platform from which to discuss, develop, and inform the public about collaborative solutions for healthy people and ocean ecosystems.