Research Highlight: Vaquita Illustrate the Complicated Landscape of Endangered Species Preservation

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The vaquita, a small porpoise found in the upper Gulf of California, is more than just a critically endangered species, say researchers. It is also an emblem of a failing approach to ecosystem conservation.

A remedy must be found immediately not only for there to be any hope of preserving the vaquita, but also to maintain ecosystems for future generation. This is the argument presented in a new analysis by Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, assistant professor in marine biology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego, and other researchers.

In the paper “Endangered species, ecosystem integrity, and human livelihoods” published in the journal Conservation Letters, they discuss the discouraging lack of long-term vision in species conservation strategies.

“The efforts to conserve and protect the vaquita are not getting the results we expected,” said Aburto-Oropeza. “We think the reason is because we, as humans, haven’t been able to piece together three major components of conservation.”

These three components include consideration of the endangered species itself, the ecosystem in which it lives, and the connection between these conservation efforts and human livelihood.

“We need to integrate all of these components,” said Aburto-Oropeza, who is concerned by current conservation efforts that only target one, or at most two, of these issues, and aren’t enough to create a lasting impact.

In the upper Gulf of California, the small home range of the vaquita, there are fewer than 60 individuals left, and many things make conservation efforts difficult.

“We see mismanaged fisheries and the black market sale of various endangered species of fish,” said Aburto-Oropeza. “It is a harsh environment for the development of new plans.”

A major concern is that “quick fix” efforts continue to rule the way conservation is managed in this region.

About a year and a half ago, the Mexican government placed a two-year ban on gill nets in the biosphere reserve in the upper Gulf of California. A gill net is a vertically hung fishing net that often harms or kills marine animals caught as bycatch, including the vaquita. After the ban, gill nets were replaced by trawling, where larger fishing nets with bigger openings are dragged along by fishing vessels. These trawling nets still generate bycatch, including endangered species of fish and turtles, and can destroy the seafloor, disturbing entire ecosystems.

“New fishing technology and techniques deemed safe for vaquita, or any other single species, also need to meet any existing national and international standards so that regional fisheries can move towards sustainable practices,” said Catalina Lopez-Sagastegui, a scholar in residence at UC MEXUS, UC Riverside, and coauthor of the paper.

Now approaching the end of this ban, establishing an effective plan moving forward is essential. The two-year enforcement period could have been utilized to create a long-term vision for solving these issues, but the government is moving fast with quick fix plans, but without any hard data or real strategy. This puts the integrity of the entire ecosystem at risk, said Aburto-Oropeza.

“Already a year and a half in, everyone is behaving as they were before,” he said. “This two-year ban won’t be time well spent if we don’t learn anything.”
The study notes that a major difficulty lies in trying to resolve disputes between the fishery and conservation sectors in which economic interests of fishermen are pitted against the long-term welfare of marine creatures. The two parties must reach a compromise regarding the management of resources, which take into account the long-term goals for the region. Part of this vision must include the management of extracted resources, and a fair agreement between fishermen and their buyers who control the prices and production chain in the area. These fishermen are suffering from a market system in which they often interact with only one buyer who is then able to dictate prices. The arrangement leaves them with no bargaining power.

“Making a change now is urgent,” said Aburto-Oropeza, “but 20 years ago, it was also urgent.”

People may not be so concerned with the effect on their lives now, but the researchers say that future generations will be paying for a present-day lack of foresight.

Aburto-Oropeza said he believes that younger generations in Mexico and elsewhere are already thinking of how to live in ways that preserve natural resources as best they can, and that the rest of humanity should follow suit.

“We need a long-term vision, and we need to implement it now,” he said

– Samantha H. Jones is a fourth-year doctoral student in the Biomedical Sciences program at UC San Diego.

Related Image Gallery: Vaquita Illustrate the Complicated Landscape of Endangered Species Preservation

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