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Hope for vaquitas: removing life-threatening illegal nets to help save world’s most endangered marine animal

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Devastatingly, there are just 23 vaquita porpoises left on earth. Along with partners, we’re using sonar scanning technology to find lost and abandoned nets in Mexico’s Gulf of California, where all these remaining vaquitas live.

 

Along with the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), and Californian company Monterey Bay Diving, we joined forces with local fishermen in San Felipe, Mexico last month (October 2017). Together, we located, illegal fishing nets – specifically mesh gillnets – in critical vaquita porpoise habitat.

The high level of fishing activity means that many gillnets have been lost or abandoned in the upper Gulf of California. These nets are the single biggest cause of the vaquita’s near extinction.

Saving lives through sonar

We used unique sonar scanning technology, provided by Monterey Bay Diving, to find discarded nets likely to entangle vaquitas. We removed an astounding 2,000 square metres of net.

The technology is extremely precise, and allows the team to view a span of up to 200 metres underwater with accuracy of within 0.1 metres. Once a gillnet was located, we used underwater grappling tools to mark the net, so it could later be removed.

“Monterey Bay Diving is proud to be a part of this project and maintains a strong advocacy of the ocean and its marine life,” said Jared Berg, president of Monterey Bay Diving.

The gillnets recovered will be recycled for use in nylon-based products, by partners in the Global Ghost Gear Initiative which we founded in 2015.

Reducing over time

This most recent fishing gear recovery mission was funded by WWF Mexico. It follows the team’s earlier gear recovery expedition in May, when the team removed approximately 5,702 square metres of net – almost three times more than October.

During an entire month of scanning between September and October, the team found significantly less gear than over a similar length of time in May. This is a hopeful sign that the habitat may finally be safer for the vulnerable vaquitas – for now.

Totoaba fishing: the main culprit

Unfortunately, when the next season of fishing for a fish called ‘totoaba’ comes around, more gillnets will be likely be used, despite a national ban on fishing in the habitat, putting vaquitas at risk yet again.

The illegal nylon gillnets that entangle and kill vaquitas are used to catch the totoaba. Also, a critically endangered species, the totoaba is sold illegally in China where its swim bladder is used in traditional medicine.

Government support is needed

In response to the critical status of the vaquita, Mexico has banned the use of gillnets in the upper Gulf. However, it’s crucial this ban is strictly enforced if vaquitas are to continue as a species.

“Ghost nets from illegal fishing activities have driven the vaquita to the point of extinction,” said Elizabeth Hogan, our US oceans and wildlife campaign manager.

“But there is hope that innovative solutions can save them. Finding and removing the nets is crucial for making the vaquita’s habitat safer, and we hope the Mexican government continues to enforce this animal’s protection in the wild,” Elizabeth continued.

Not just vaquitas

This project to help the world’s 23 remaining vaquitas survive is part of our Sea Change campaign.

Many other sea animal species become entangled in different types of lost and abandoned fishing gear, known as ‘ghost gear’.

A staggering 640,000 tonnes of ghost fishing gear is left in global waters each year, killing approximately 136,000 seals, sea lions, whales, and more, every year.

Learn more about our Sea Change campaign, and how we’re protecting sea life.

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