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Green Scene: The Vaquita's Vanishing Act August 11, 2010 8:46 AM

The pair of stubby-nose porpoises surfaces as though parting a glossy veil. The vaquitas take a quick gulp of air, and then just as suddenly as they appeared, they sink back into the Sea of Cortez’s murky waters.

The pair of stubby-nose porpoises surfaces as though parting a glossy veil. The vaquitas take a quick gulp of air, and then just as suddenly as they appeared, they sink back into the Sea of Cortez’s murky waters. Everything about them—from the mask-like rings around their eyes to the dark gray color of their bodies—underscores their shy, elusive nature. Perhaps that’s why the world’s smallest porpoise has been slipping closer to extinction right before our eyes.

Scientists fear that the five-foot-long vaquitas, which were indentified just over a half-century ago in the waters between the Baja peninsula and the Mexican mainland, won’t last another 20 years. Lorenzo Rojas Bracho, a marine biologist with Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology, is part of a team of scientists who have been studying vaquitas for the past decade—counting their numbers from boats and listening to their calls, or clicks, using undersea microphones. But for Rojas the past 10 years may have seemed more like a long vigil than a census, as vaquita numbers have steadily withered away to just 250 animals—down from some 600 in the mid-1990s.

“Fishing is the main threat to the vaquita’s survival,” Rojas says. “It’s a species that’s going extinct because of human interference.”

Most of these “little cows”—the English translation of “vaquitas”—have been claimed by commercial fishing. The porpoises get tangled and drown in nets beside captured sea bass, mackerel and shrimp, which are prized by seafood markets and restaurants in Mexico, the United States and abroad. But unlike cattle, these endangered porpoises are worthless to fishermen, who toss the dead bodies thoughtlessly out to sea.

“The only way to save the vaquita is to stop fishing where it lives,” says Juan Carlos Cantu Guzman, director of Defenders of Wildlife’s Mexico office. A biologist by training, Cantu is lobbying Mexican authorities to strengthen protections inside the 500-square-mile vaquita refuge area.

Established in 2005 by the Mexican government, the marine reserve offers little security for the porpoises. “It is a refuge in name only,” Cantu says. “The government just last year declined authorization for shrimp trawlers to fish inside the refuge, and gillnetting is still happening nearby, where vaquitas also live.”

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Rarest of the Rare: List of Critically Endangered Species April 16, 2010 8:42 AM

ScienceDaily (Apr. 10, 2010) The Wildlife Conservation Society released a list of critically endangered species dubbed the "Rarest of the Rare" -- a group of animals most in danger of extinction, ranging from Cuban crocodiles to white-headed langurs in Vietnam.

Number 9 on the list....

Vaquita: This small ocean porpoise is drowning in fishing nets.


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NOAA Strengthens Protection for Harbor Porpoises off the Northeastern U.S. March 11, 2010 11:40 AM

NOAA’s Fisheries Service today announced improvements to fishing rules intended to keep harbor porpoises out of gillnets set in waters off the U.S. East Coast, and to reduce the number of these animals that die after encounters with the gear.

These changes address the two primary causes of a recent increase harbor porpoise bycatch in gillnets: increased bycatch in places where measures to prevent it are not currently required, and gaps in compliance with current management measures, such as improper use of pingers.

To address these problems, the measures announced today expand when and where acoustic net alarms, called “ingers,”are required on gillnets off New England, add new seasonal management measures off New Jersey, and define areas off New England that will close to gillnetters if harbor porpoise bycatch gets too high. However, expanded and more consistent use of pingers should reduce bycatch significantly.

Pingers have been required seasonally in gillnets off New England since 1998. However, they are sometimes used improperly, reducing their overall effectiveness. In the Mid-Atlantic region, measures are believed to have been less effective in recent years, mostly because some fishing gear was not properly modified to reduce the risk of capturing and retaining harbor porpoises.

In the Mid-Atlantic, a new management area is being created off the coast of New Jersey, encompassing waters where high bycatch has been seen recently. The area will be closed to gillnetting from February 1 to March 15, and gear modified to reduce the risk of bycatch will be required to fish there between January 1 and April 30 every year when gillnet fishing is allowed.

Between 1998, when gillnetters were first required to use pingers, gear modifications, and special management areas, and 2003, the number of harbor porpoise that died in gillnets declined from more than 1,500 per year to just a few hundred per year.

In 2003, however, bycatch numbers started to increase and about 1,000 animals are estimated to have died in gillnets in 2006, the most recent year for which there is an estimate. This exceeds allowable levels.

NOAA’s Fisheries Service met with a team of stakeholders in late 2007 and early 2008 to discuss ways to reverse this trend. The measures announced today are a result of those meetings and recommendations made by the team, as well as comments and recommendations from the general public.

The stakeholder team is one of several created in 1996 by the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act to help NOAA’s Fisheries Service devise better ways of reducing bycatch of marine mammals to allowable levels in the nation’s commercial fisheries. The harbor porpoise team’s goal is to reduce serious injuries and mortalities of harbor porpoises from interactions with gillnets to just a few dozen animals annually. The team currently has about 40 members, comprising affected fishermen, environmentalists, federal and state fishery officials, and marine mammal scientists.

Harbor porpoises are found in both the North Atlantic and the North Pacific, primarily in subarctic temperate, coastal and offshore waters. There are estimated to be about 89,000 animals in the population found off the Northeastern U.S. Harbor porpoises are protected under the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, but are not listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

NOAA Fisheries Service is dedicated to protecting and preserving our nation’s living marine resources and their habitat through scientific research, management and enforcement. NOAA Fisheries Service provides effective stewardship of these resources for the benefit of the nation, supporting coastal communities that depend upon them, and helping to provide safe and healthy seafood to consumers and recreational opportunities for the American public.

NOAA understands and predicts changes in the Earth's environment, from the depths of the ocean to the surface of the sun, and conserves and manages our coastal and marine resources. Visit us at

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Saving Harbor Porpoises March 09, 2010 11:43 AM

Protecting these shy marine mammals from stranding or dying in nets is a long-term commitment

How do you save a harbor porpoise? Let me count the ways (and the ways that The HSUS tries to help them).

Stranded Porpoises

If dolphins and porpoises become ill, they may move into shallow waters to try to make it easier to breathe, and they can become stranded. Federally licensed stranding networks are sometimes able to rescue and rehabilitate them.

In the 1990s I was a member of a stranding network in Cape Cod and went to the beaches to assist at strandings. Listening to the distress cries is heart-wrenching but it is heart-warming to watch a healthy porpoise released into the ocean, hearing the soft "puff" of her breath as she swims off.

Since coming to The HSUS 16 years ago, I’ve worked with our government affairs staff to increase funding for stranding networks, so they are more able to save lives and to study the causes of strandings. Most recently, we have been please to support legislation introduced by Senator Maria Cantwell (D-WA) to increase funding for stranding response.

Dead Porpoises

How can you save a dead porpoise? You can’t. But you can try to keep the same thing from happening to other porpoises.

Entanglement and drowning in fishing nets is a leading cause of death for harbor porpoises throughout the world—it kills tens of thousands each year. I’ve been appointed to federal task forces that work with fishermen to devise ways to reduce marine mammal deaths.

When all else fails, I collaborate with The HSUS’s Animal Protection Litigation section attorneys to ensure that the government follows its own laws, such as the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In 1999, more than 2,000 porpoises died in nets set along the U.S. east coast. When the federal government dragged its feet in fulfilling its legal obligation to safeguard the porpoises, we filed suit and won. Once the government started requiring fishermen to outfit nets with acoustic "pingers" that warned harbor porpoises, that death toll dropped dramatically.

But then the government backed off on enforcement, and the death toll began to climb again, reaching more than a thousand a year by 2005. So we stepped back in, and we’ve worked successfully with the National Marine Fisheries Service and fishermen to agree protect harbor porpoises by outfitting nets with pingers and closing certain areas to risk-prone fishing when harbor porpoises are migrating through in the largest numbers.

Future Porpoises

We are always on the alert for proposals to weaken regulations or laws that protect marine mammals, and we’re always searching for ways to make them stronger. Burning up the phone lines talking to regulators, pounding away at a computer keyboard to advocate for strict regulations, sitting in multi-day-long management meetings, and assisting in legal briefs may not be glamorous. But those are often the most effective means of protecting porpoises—and all animals. Our efforts in the past have helped save the lives of thousands of porpoises…and we will be no less vigilant in the future.

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Last chance to save the vaquita porpoise from extinction? March 09, 2010 11:40 AM

This is a crucial time for the critically endangered vaquita porpoise (Phocoena sinus). Despite conservation efforts, the vaquita population has dropped more than 50 percent in the past three years as hundreds of porpoises have died in commercial fishing nets. Now just 150 vaquitas remain in their sole habitat, a portion of the Gulf of California off the coast of Mexico, and the species exists at the razor's edge of extinction.

But meanwhile, hundreds, if not thousands, of local fishermen depend on the vaquita's ocean habitat for their livelihoods. They have not been happy about, or supportive of, previous efforts to preserve the porpoise. As
Nature reported in 2007: "Fishing industry advocates sometimes speak openly of wiping [the vaquita] out...Earlier programmes to alter fishing practices in the region have proven difficult to implement; last year, $1 million from the government that ostensibly paid regional fishermen not to fish instead went to buy new boats and motors."

But now the Mexican government has gone one step further, passing a resolution to
ban trawling in a specific region known as the Vaquita Refuge. The refuge was set up in 2005 to protect the porpoise, but Mexico never banned trawling in the refuge or limited its use elsewhere until now. Trawling, a type of fishing that drags large nets behind one or more boats, has been the main cause of vaquita deaths over the last few years.

The new government resolution also limits trawling in nearby areas and "places a series of restrictive measures on the remaining trawlers calling for best-practices, monitoring of by-catch, and zero catch of vaquitas and
turtles," says Ani Youatt, director of the NRDC's Mexico and Peru BioGems Project.

Youatt says the resolution isn't perfect, as vaquitas do migrate outside the limited protected area, but does call it "a change in course for the human relationship to the vaquita."

So will this be enough to save the vaquita? Does it come in time? A 2007 study published in the journal Conservation Biology estimated that at least 100 vaquita are necessary to preserve the species' genetic diversity. With just 150 porpoises left today, every vaquita counts.

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Critically Endangered Porpoise May Be Doomed To Extinction February 23, 2010 10:02 AM

ScienceDaily (Jan. 16, 2008) An international research team, including biologists from NOAA's Fisheries Service, reported in the scientific journal Conservation Biology, that the estimated population of vaquita, a porpoise found in the Gulf of California, is likely two years away from reaching such low levels that their rate to extinction will increase and possibly be irreversible. Scientists believe only about 150 vaquita remain.

The research team, led by Armando Jaramillo, Instituto Nacional de Ecología, Mexico, included researchers Barbara Taylor, NOAA's Fisheries Service, and Randy Reeves Reeves, Chair of the Cestacean Specialist Group, IUCN -- the World Conservation Union.

The group assessed the number of vaquita based on past estimates of abundance and deaths in fishing nets together with current fishing effort. Approximately 30 vaquita drown each year in the Gulf of California when they become entangled in nets set for fish and shrimp.

Vaquita are found only in a small area of productive, shallow water in the northernmost Gulf of California. They are listed as endangered species by the United States and Mexico and critically endangered by the World Conservation Union.

Researchers cite worrisome parallels between vaquita and the baiji, a freshwater dolphin in the Yangtze River, which was recently declared likely to be extinct; primarily from entanglement in fishing gear.

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Articles , Information and Alerts on Porpoises' February 23, 2010 9:16 AM

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