Research Highlight: Misguided attempts to revive Vaquita Conservation

You may have heard about the vaquita, a hapless little porpoise species in the Upper Gulf of California, Mexico. It’s been one of the most high-profile marine conservation cases in recent months – its numbers had plummeted to the point where world experts in marine mammal conservation decided that the only hope for the species was a desperate attempt to capture the remaining vaquitas and keep in them in captivity. Sadly, this resulted in the fatality of one vaquita, and the decision was made to end these efforts.

This is deeply saddening, but not shocking.

With my research team, through a partnership with San Diego Zoo Global, I evaluated the social side of vaquita conservation last year as part of my postdoctoral work. It was obvious that conservation efforts, despite acknowledging the need to involve communities and mitigate negative social impacts, had failed to actually implement such practices in a meaningful way. Our research suggests that major errors were made in the vaquita conservation process. It was not just corruption that doomed the vaquita. It was also the misguided, excessively narrow perspectives that drove conservation efforts.  A guest post to Deep Sea News that I wrote back in May shares some of our results (we are now working to submit the paper…stay tuned).

I just saw a news item that certain conservation groups in the US (Natural Resources Defense Council, Animal Welfare Institute, and Center for Biological Diversity) have filed legal notice to push for an embargo against importing seafood caught in the Upper Gulf of California with nets known to accidentally catch vaquita. This basically is a way to pressure the US National Marine Fisheries Service to implement the Marine Mammal Protection Act’s restrictions on fisheries involving marine mammal bycatch to an international fishery.

On the surface, that seems like a good step. Why wouldn’t we apply the same restrictions to our seafood imports as to our national fisheries? Why wouldn’t we want to ensure that the seafood we consume in the US does not threaten marine mammals? In reality, these controls will be implemented in the next 5 years (or, such is the goal) to all fisheries importing to the US (I’ll write more about *this* another time…).

Well, the problem lies in the context. To state it simply:

  1. To save the vaquita, bycatch must be completely eliminated
  2. However, these fisheries targeted by this legal notice are not the only ones catching vaquita; actually, the main culprit recently has likely been the illegal fishery for totoaba, which is not exported to the US – it’s exported to Asia
  3. This illegal fishery is extremely lucrative, and is operated by cartels who certainly don’t care about this embargo
  4. Gillnet fishing has been the main source of livelihood for communities in the Upper Gulf
  5. Vaquita conservation is built on a long history of conflict between conservationists and communities, with conservation actions ignoring the needs of communities and not properly incorporating community perspectives or involvement
  6. No serious efforts have been made to support a transition from gillnet fisheries to other livelihoods – and such support is needed, as these communities do not have many existing, ready-to-exploit opportunities for alternative livelihoods
  7. Without providing options for livelihoods, it is immoral and impractical to push for a ban against gillnets
  8. Doing so could result in even more fishers going into the illegal totoaba fishery to make money…and thus, worsen the situation for the vaquita.

As far as I know, none of those 3 conservation groups listed above have any physical presence in the communities. I suspect that they are ignorant of the complex and critically important social context of this situation.  And I am deeply frustrated that, instead of taking a step back to assess why vaquita conservation has failed, they keep stubbornly plowing forward.

I have tended to soften my words when writing and talking about this in professional realms. However, I will here say: these actions are counterproductive and just plain stupid. Worse than stupid. Unethical.

Should those words upset you, or lead you to conclude that I don’t care about conservation, consider this: the reason this makes me so upset is that I actually care very deeply about conservation. And that is precisely why it offends me on a profound level to see misguided and arrogant actions that sabotage any potential for effective conservation.


My previous posts on this research: here, here, and here.

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