This episode is the first in a mini series about the vaquita. Lauren chats with Dr. Thomas Jefferson, the founder of VIVA Vaquita, about his mission to save the endangered vaquita porpoise.
#3: Vanishing Vaquita: Gillnets and Black Markets
- Podcast host Lauren Hartling with Dr. Thomas Jefferson
- Post date July 17, 2020
This episode is the first in a mini series about the vaquita, a tiny porpoise only found in the Gulf of California, Mexico. Lauren chats with Dr. Thomas Jefferson, the founder of VIVA Vaquita, about his mission to save the endangered vaquita porpoise and the challenges that this species faces.
Host & Executive Producer: Lauren Hartling
Guest: Dr. Thomas Jefferson
Audio Engineering & Editing: Marcus Wernicke
Theme Song: Black Rhomb - River of Time (under license)
Additional Music: RimsyMusic - Watching the Stars (under license)
Sound effects under license from soundsnap, Ojoo Limited
Introduction Lauren: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Not a Dolphin. My name is Lauren. Hartling, joining you once again for a very splashy adventure for the next couple of episodes. I’m very excited to share this with you because I have the opportunity to interview several folks who had all researched the vaquita, a type of porpoise, one of seven. Um, they’re highly endangered as you will be learning in these next couple of episodes. And so we wanted to really spend a lot of time focused on the species for you. The next couple of episodes might…
Lauren: Hello, and welcome to another episode of Not a Dolphin. My name is Lauren. Hartling, joining you once again for a very splashy adventure for the next couple of episodes. I’m very excited to share this with you because I have the opportunity to interview several folks who had all researched the vaquita, a type of porpoise, one of seven.
Um, they’re highly endangered as you will be learning in these next couple of episodes. And so we wanted to really spend a lot of time focused on the species for you. The next couple of episodes might come across a little heavy because we are talking about potential extinction, but it’s important to know about this.
And also I think you’re going to find this a lot of hope, uh, from these folks who have done this research for a long time.
The first researcher I had a chance to speak to was Dr. Thomas Jefferson. He’s actually been studying marine mammals since 1983. And in particular, he’s been focusing on population ecology, species, conservation and management, and specifically looking at Marine species and how they’re effected by human activity.
So with that being said, let’s dive right in. That might work.
How’s it going today? Dr. Thomas Jefferson,
Thomas: I’m doing fine. I’m doing fine. How are you?
Lauren: Um, so I wanted to, I guess start our whole conversation off.
Um, maybe we should get everyone up to speed. Uh, since we are hoping to talk about vaquita and in particular, we wanted this episode to come out around the International Save the Vaquita day. Um…
What is the Vaquita?
Lauren: Can you tell us a bit more about what a Vaquita is?
Thomas: Yes. Um, the Vaquita is one of seven species of true porpoises in the world, which I’m sure probably most of your readers know are, are. Related to dolphins, but are not, dolphins are a different type of animal, but pretty closely related. and there’s not a lot of diversity in the porpoise family, being only having seven species.
Uh, so the Vaquita is one of those species that occurs in Eastern North Pacific. And is found only in the Northern Gulf of Mexico, sorry, both of California, in Mexican waters. And that makes it the porpoise species that has the most limited range, of any of those seven.
Lauren: So that’s the only place we can find them is in the Gulf of California,
Thomas: Yeah. Right. And it’s, and it’s not just the Gulf of California. It’s actually just the very Northern about maybe 20% of the Gulf of California. So it’s really a tiny range. Um, it’s kind of amazing. I mean, there’s a little Island called Rocas Consag, in the middle of the vaquita’s range and it’s possible, at least theoretically, to stand on top of that island and look around, spin around 360 degrees, you can pretty much see on a clear day, the entire range of the species from one spot.
Lauren: So typically when you picture marine mammals, you probably imagine them having this vast, vast range. We’ve all looked at range maps, and if you haven’t checked them out, they’re kind of awesome. But having such a small range is just shocking. So I asked Thomas if vaquita were the most endangered marine mammal in the world.
Thomas: They are. Um, yes, unfortunately they have that distinction. Until about a little over 10, 12 years ago, there was a river dolphin in the Yangtze river of China that had been considered to be the most endangered marine mammal species in the world. And unfortunately, that species, um, was thought to have gone extinct in about 2006 or 2007, which is really super sad, you know, to think about. And what that meant was that then the vaquita moved up from being number two to being the most endangered species in the world. So it has that sort of dubious distinction.
Lauren: That’s. Yeah, that’s um, that’s kinda hard to think about. Cause I feel like we often talk so much about protecting and conserving wild spaces and the reality is we do lose species.
Thomas: Yeah, absolutely.
Lauren: And so that’s your, that’s your work, right? Like that’s what that’s your focus is protecting marine mammals.
Thomas: Yeah. I mean, I’m a marine mammal biologist. I’ve been doing this work, like I said for about 30, 34 years or so. and I have focused most of my work on, research and other activities that are directly relevant to conservation. That’s just been sort of my focus from the very beginning. and so the work that I do, I have a bunch of different projects that I work on, but the vaquita project, is something I’ve been working on kind of off and on for most of that time for probably close to 30 years.
but I’ve been really focusing. quite a bit of my effort on it for the last, about 11 or 12 years. and that’s largely just because the species, unfortunately, despite a lot of, people who’ve been making warnings for decades, the species has continued to decline over that time period. And I thought like, you know, when it got to be about 2008 or so, the situation was dire enough that I needed to really focus a major part of my effort on it.
The State of the Vaquita
Lauren: Well, and that’s, I’m glad you’re one of the people who’s out there trying to raise the alarm for these animals. What’s our estimated population at right now. I mean, best guess.
Thomas: yeah, it really, it is, it is a best guess. I mean, we do have, from previous years we do have, specific, statistically, determined estimates from mostly from acoustic monitoring, although there is some ground-truthing, from, vessel surveys that goes into that. but there hasn’t been a extensive survey of the vaquita’s range in the last couple of years.
And so the best estimate we have right now, um, and this is get ready, hope you are all sitting down the best estimate is probably 15 animals. That is one. Five animals or even less. So literally, most of the time that I go and do a talk about vaquitas, uh, I’m in a room of, you know, 20, 30, 40 people. And then actually saying this for a couple of years now that oftentimes I go in and I say, look around the room. There are more people in this room than are vaquitas left in the planet. And that’s really a staggering thought.
Lauren: Jeez. I remember even when they were saying there’s 50 individuals and I mean, that’s a horrifying number, but
Thomas: Right, right. 15. Yeah, it’s, it’s, it’s not only declined, continuously for the last, several, decade and a half or so. it’s been, unfortunately the decline has been accelerating in recent years, but, the unfortunate fact is that they’re declining and they’re, you know, running towards that, that point of extinction, faster and faster, you know, than they have been in the past.
Lauren: So why have the vaquita been disappearing at the rate they’re disappearing?
Thomas: Well, the species was first described by scientists in 1958. So it’s been, you know, a little over 60 years since the species was first described. Um, and it was known when. The first description was made back in the 1950s that the species was vulnerable to, entanglement in fishing nets in particular gillnets which virtually every species of porpoise in the world, has major conflicts with gillnet fisheries and the vaquita is no exception. so they have certainly been. Getting caught in gillnets probably since before the species was even known to science, there has been various gill net fisheries operating within their range and the Gulf of California.
Um, certainly for well over a hundred years. And, The initial decline of the species probably was due primarily to entanglement in a particular gillnet fishery for a large sea bass, like fish called totoaba which is endemic to the Gulf of California. And, That species of fish also became endangered largely through uncontrolled and unregulated fishing.
And, um, for many years, the fishery was closed down and the species itself was, fairly well protected, partly by its low numbers. But we know also that in the last 10 or 15 years or so, that’s our target population has begun to, recover to a certain extent enough so that, fishing. Was considered to be feasible for them, even though it was still illegal.
And so what’s happened is in the last couple of years, um, the, illegal fishery four to 12 that has developed, and there are some other fisheries that are actually affecting the species, but it’s largely this fishing for it to Traba that has actually been the major reason for their decline in the last, you know, 10, 12 years or so.
The Totoaba Fishery
Lauren: And so the totoaba, is this being hunted for its meat? Is it being hunted for scales? Why is it so prized?
Thomas: Well, initially it was hunted for its meat. It was, it was a fish species that, it’s, they’re very large. They get, they can get to be, you know, close to two meters in length. there are really large, sea bass like fish and, the meat is considered to be quite tasty. And so they were hunting.
They were. You know, fished for, uh, in the early 19 hundreds, primarily for the meat. Um, but what’s happened in the recent years is that the fishermen have no interest whatsoever in, in the meat or any other products that come from the fish. And the reason is because the swim bladders of these fish. there’s a market for them sort of an underground black market for them in China.
Lauren: What is the swim bladder? You’re wondering it’s an organ that you find in most bony fish, most bony fish that will swim throughout the water column or near the surface.
Bony fish are things like the fish in your fish tank or that salmon you caught last year. they are compared to things like cartilaginous fish. So things like sharks, skates, and rays, the cartilaginous fish don’t have. A swim bladder, but most bony fish do. And they have a swim bladder to help them maintain buoyancy in the water.
So if they want to go higher up in the water column, they can inflate the swim bladder. If they want to go down in the water column to sink, they can deflate the swim bladder. usually through burping, getting rid of that extra air and. That is the organ that fishermen are looking for. Is this swim bladder from totoaba, which in a larger individual, the swim bladder itself would be larger and more valuable.
Thomas: And that market is so lucrative that, and the money that the fishermen can make is so great from the swim bladders that the fishermen basically find it, only worthwhile for them when they catch a fish. Cut it open quickly. Cut out the swim bladder, throw the fish overboard, let the fish rot in the ocean and then basically use the swim bladder as their really their only, they’re only product from that fishery.
Lauren: So I did some research into this underground black market that Thomas was talking about.
And from a 2016 research paper from the environmental investigation agency, they were reporting that one kilogram of swim bladder was going for $8,500. Compare that to a report from 2019, where one kilogram of swim bladder was going for 20,000 up to $80,000 per kilogram. So definitely the cost has gone up over the years.
I also tried to find out how many swim bladders would be in a kilogram on average, that information doesn’t really seem to exist, but the larger the fish, the larger, the swim bladder.
Thomas: So besides everything else about the fishery, that’s really, you know, kind of scary and worrisome. It’s also a very destructive fishery because, it’s not efficient. It doesn’t use the whole animal. Basically only use a small part of it. And the rest of it is basically thrown away as trash.
Lauren: Yeah. I thought that the whole fish was used, but just, yeah, picturing, I mean, I’ve seen the pictures of, you know, the finning of sharks and,
Thomas: It’s a similar thing. Yeah.
Thomas: Right? Very similar. Yup. Yup, exactly. Yup. It’s really a, really a shame.
Lauren: I am wondering, has there ever been any Research or looking into, raising totoaba in like an aquaculture type setting?
Thomas: there actually is. there actually are successful, aquaculture operations for raising totoaba. they do exist, and those are, you know, They’re they’re permitted in certain situations so that the, they can be, you know, appropriate aquaculture target, so they do exist. But the problem is, is that the, the market for the bladders in China, They’re primarily interested in fish from very large, very old fish.
And of course the fish that are raised successfully in captivity need to be released into the ocean when they’re relatively young, and relatively small. And so those fish, don’t. Provide bladders. That would be of any interest to the, to the people that you know, are looking for this product in China.
So even though there is successful aquaculture operations, they haven’t really done much or anything to relieve the demand for the illegal fishery and the ocean.
Lauren: Okay. Well, I actually find that interesting that I guess they’re kind of doing what we do here in North America, raising salmon and then releasing them.
Thomas: Yeah. Yeah.
Enemy of the Porpoise #1: Gillnets
Lauren: So you’re talking about the gillnets that are targeting a fish. The porpoises are getting caught, the vaquita are getting caught.
Um, so the, the vaquita are not the intended targets of these gillnets.
Thomas: Right. Yeah. The vaquita are just collateral damage, you know? and the fishermen don’t actually want to catch vaquitas. you know, they’re not, it’s not something that they’re going after and trying to catch. the vaquitas just happened to be in the same area where the nets are being set. And as we know, purposes of all species in the vaquita again is, is, you know, typical of the other species.
They have this particular vulnerability. It seems like to gillnets dolphins get caught in gillnets. Uh, sea turtles get caught in gillnets even large whales and sharks get caught in gillnets, but porpoises seem to have real problems with, gillnets in particular. so that the key are in this area, swimming around and trying to catch their prey.
and, you know, do the things that they do look for mates and things like that. And they’re just swimming into these next blundering into these nets. And the nets are usually held underwater by weights. And so, you know, porpoises being, air breathing animals when they get caught in a net gets held underwater with weights. you know, if they don’t get to the surface within a couple of minutes or so they’re going to drown or suffocate, and that’s what happens.
Lauren: with your experience of work with marine mammals, have you come across any explanation of why porpoise or, or marine mammals in general or Marine creatures. Do we, do we understand why they keep running into nets? is it that they can’t see them?
Thomas: Well, we used to think that that porpoises in particular, they porpioses have a very, what we call narrow band high-frequency echolocation system. So they don’t use the, the wide range of frequencies that dolphins do. and the replication, they use it very, very. Narrow set of frequencies that are way up above our hearing range.
So actually when they click away, we can’t even hear them unless we use special equipment to, to slow that sound down. and we used to think that that echolocation system just was not able to pick up echoes from the gillnets and that, that was why they were getting caught. But we now know that that’s not really true.
they are able to detect the nets, at least in certain circumstances, but it also seems that the structure of the nets, depending on, you know, what kind of mesh they’re using and whether or not, you know, what kind of the material they’re using to make the net out of the nets can be challenging for them to detect, when the porpoises are swimming around, especially, probably looking for food.
Um, or if any predators, if they’re. Moving slowly and they’re, you know, not focusing on anything else. the belief is generally that they probably can detect the nets in most circumstances, but you know, when they’re rushing around chasing, after a fish, they’re kind of focused on something else and that’s when they tend to blunders their nets and get caught.
Lauren: I wonder if like a, maybe a human comparison would be when we walk into the screen door, you’re rushing to get outside on a beautiful day and to the, get to your barbecue. And yeah, there’s a door there.
Thomas: No, that’s probably a very good, very good analogy. And you know what I mean, anybody who has a screen door, which probably most of us do, you probably don’t run into it that often, because most of the time, you know, you’re, you’re, you’re paying attention.
Vaquita Population History
Lauren: You were mentioning earlier that you have spent over 34 years focusing on marine mammals, and you mentioned that you have studied vaquita much prior to, you know, our current knowledge of them, what was maybe your first memory of these animals?
Thomas: Well, I, I first saw my first vaquita in 1986, um, which may be before many of your listeners were born, and I was an undergraduate student doing my bachelor’s degree at the time, and I was already interested in marine mammals and luckily the place where I did my, my, uh, degree. The professor of marine mammalogy, there was a guy named Ken Norris who was actually the guy who discovered the vaquita back in 1958.
Which was pretty cool. And so he had a graduate student and then Greg Silver, who was doing his PhD, trying to conduct an acoustic survey for the vaquita. And in fact it was the first ever, focused or dedicated study under the vaquita that had ever been done.
Everything else before. That was pretty much opportunistic. And so, Greg, conducted several expeditions down to the Gulf of California to look for these animals and to try to get an estimate of their numbers based on an acoustic survey or census. And I went down with him on a couple of these trips as his research assistant.
and that’s where I got a chance to see my first vaquitas back in 1986. And at the time we knew they were, we knew they were pretty rare at the time, but we didn’t really have any real idea how many there were left. And we now know that probably at the time there were, there were likely over a thousand, Maybe 1200 or something like that, which is still a low number, but compared to what we’re looking at now, you know, it seems like a lot
Lauren: So, I guess I’m wondering, as you say 1200 for any average population of animals, a species, as you say, like that’s not a
Thomas: no, it’s not. Yeah.
Lauren: Is there any, um, evidence or stories from people in the area of seeing these animals? do we have an idea of maybe if they were more abundant at some point, or is it one of these things where they’re a porpoise, they’re cryptic? We didn’t really notice until we noticed.
Thomas: Yeah, they probably were never really very abundant. and we do believe that that, that very limited range that I described earlier probably, has been a characteristic of their biology. you know, for much of their evolutionary history, certainly for many hundreds of thousands of years. but we do have some evidence from some, genetic information and some modeling that suggests that the population in the early 19 hundreds before the major gillnet fisheries that started affecting them really kind of became prominent that they may have number maybe a couple of thousand, The best guess is maybe around 4,000 individuals. so at one point, you know, while they were never certainly highly abundant, um, they do, we do think that they were, they were, you know, the numbers where the population was healthy enough to be able to sustain itself.
For sure. but of course, when these gillnet fishery started probably in, you know, the 1930s or 1940s, that’s when the real problems began.
Lauren: Right. And even, even 4,000 individuals, I mean, it, it still sounds like a lot and it is a lot, but it’s not.Like, that’s not a, you know, a massive number of individuals, but…
Thomas: no, exactly. I mean, just think you go to a, you know, a football game or a baseball game, and you’re in a stadium with, you know, 60 or 80,000 people. So, you know, that’s 4,000 is really not a lot of animals, either, but, you know, that’s, that’s the starting point we think. And it’s only declined from there.
Lauren: Right. Now you mentioned being able to track them when you first saw them in 1986 with acoustic monitoring. Can you explain what that is a bit more?
Thomas: Well, yeah. Um, because we’ve known, you know, that all the porpoises, the vaquita included, have this, very narrow band, high-frequency echolocation system, it’s been considered to be a useful characteristic, for us to study them because there’s not a whole lot of other kinds of animals that make sounds within those frequency ranges, and the porpoise sounds are so characteristic. They’re so distinctive that if you can have equipment that can record those high frequencies, it can be a very useful way of, of, uh, surveying or censusing for them. And so the study that I was helping out with in the 1980s, by Greg Silver, that was the focus was trying to, use acoustics to be able to get, you know, the first estimate of the numbers of the animal.
Um, and the problem that occurred back then was we didn’t have very good filtering software. and what we found out or what Greg found out was that there was in fact, snapping shrimp, a little shrimp that snaps its claws together to make a sound, I believe it’s for, attracting mates and that sound is very high frequency and occurs in a similar band that the, uh, the vaquita sound occurs in. And so it caused a lot of interference and kind of made the plan of trying to do this acoustic survey or census, much more challenging. But since then, of course we develop software that allows us to filter some of those sounds out and now it’s not really a problem anymore.
Lauren: And I’m laughing because I’m picturing little shrimp wanting to be sexy, snapping their claws and researchers are like, what is happening?
Thomas: That is the life history of those shrimp. You know, they snapped their, their little claws to attract mates. So yeah, it sounds strange to us, but yeah. Right, exactly. You know? Hey,
Lauren: So I had to look this up. The shrimp that Thomas is talking about, the snapping shrimp are also known as pistol shrimp. Not only are they snapping their claws to be sexy, they’re snapping their claws to defend their territory, to communicate with other shrimp and for hunting. When they snapped their claws really, really fast, which is what they do.
That’s what makes this napping sound. They create this cavitation bubble that kills prey. That’s close by. It’s so cool.
So, you were right there at the beginning of this, um, type of. Observation of these animals and having to problem solve, Oh my gosh. Okay. This shrimp are breeding right now, this isn’t going to help us. I cause you know, you think about the research tools that we use that we’re so reliant on now.
Lauren: And obviously they all started from a place of someone trying to figure out like, how do we do this, the best that we can. And I guess you can compare it to the drone. the drone projects of a lot of people are working on right now, where they fly drones over marine mammals to, to video them. have you done that at all with vaquita?
Thomas: No, I don’t think anybody’s really done any real serious attempt to use drones for research purposes under vaquita. And a big reason for that of course, is because the drones, you know, they’re so recent, it’s just been in the last five or eight years that drones have really become prominent for research.
You know, There’s been a lot of, um, media attention to the vaquita issue the last couple of years. and a number of, film crews have gone down there to film, the animals as well as the general situation of what’s going on down there. And of course, drones have been, you know, a very important part of that effort. And, there’s a movie that came out last year called, Sea of Shadows. And, there was quite a bit of drone work that was used in, in, in making that movie.
Illegal fishing and Vaquita
Lauren: I’m going to include the link for the video that Thomas mentioned in our episode notes. So you can check out our website for that information.
Thomas: what it really does is it focuses on the, um, the illegal fishery and especially on the interaction and the collaboration with the Mexican drug cartels, which unfortunately has become, a major sort of, uh, facet of that fishery in the last couple of years.
so it sort of does uses a lot of. Investigative journalism to kind of, explore a little bit more about how, you know, these fishermen that, that, you know, originally were law abiding people just trying to feed their families have now become, you know, sort of very heavily involved with drug cartels.
it’s been kind of like an emotional roller coaster for those of us that are involved because early on, You know, there was a plan put forward to try to save the species, by basically just, just helping the fishermen to work, to develop other methods of fishing and other words to basically do something that would help the vaquita as well as kind of help the fishermen, develop a better, you know, longterm, more sustainable way of fishing to feed their families.
And so it looked like it was kind of working in, in the early stages and, Most of us got quite, you know, excited and optimistic that, you know, this is going to work and everybody’s going to benefit including the vaquita and the fishermen. but unfortunately, you know, as I described, the situation has changed dramatically in recent years with the development of this market, for the, totoaba bladders.
And you know that as well as some other. You know, economic and political issues that have happened have resulted in just, just, you know, this sort of, again, kind of like a roller coaster of emotions of, of times where things seem to be going quite well. And we thought, you know, we were going to be able to save this species.
And then, you know, suddenly something happens that indicates that, you know, it’s not working so well after all. And you know, the challenges that we’re facing are becoming much more apparent. So it’s, it’s been very, very, difficult issue for, for people that are, have been involved in it, for, for, for quite a while.
Lauren: I can’t even imagine just watching that happen as you’ve been working on it. As long as you have.
Thomas: Yeah. Seeing, seeing the crash in the population, once they were able to get the there’s, an array of acoustic monitoring, bouys set up, in. They, they, they sort of tested it out in 2008 and then I think it was about 2010 when they finally got the buoys in place. And we started getting good, you know, close to real time information on what the population was doing.
And once that data and information started coming in and we had a couple of years of data, just seeing how the, the rate of detection of the animals was declining and then declining at an ever accelerating rate, um, was really, really heartbreaking as you can imagine.
Lauren: Yeah. Wow.
Lauren: What can you tell me about some of the organizations you work with? I know you’ve done some work with Viva vaquita. Can you give us a bit more background on what Viva vaquita is doing?
Thomas: Yeah. Viva vaquita, is an organization. It’s an NGO that I started with a couple of colleagues back in 2009, which was the year after, myself and a couple of us went down to participate in a large scale, research effort on the vaquita. at that point it was the largest research efforts that had been done on the species.
It was about a month and a half of pretty intensive monitoring work or two months even, And, that’s when that, that project resulted in, a new population estimate. And at the time, it indicated that the population did decline quite a bit from the previous estimate, which was about, 12 or 13 years before that.
So there were about 250 animals left at the time, um, in 2008. And that was a real sort of, eye opener for a lot of us, because we knew that the population was small, but we didn’t realize that he declined that much. And so that’s when you know myself and a couple of my colleagues decided that we wanted to, create an organization that was focusing.
The Role of NGOs
Essentially all of its effort on the vaquita. And the reason for that is because a lot of the big NGOs, like world wildlife fund and friends of the year and a center for biological diversity and, you know, others like that Sierra club, they had paid some attention to the vaquita. But, you know, they’re, so they, they do so many different things and the vaquita is such a, sort of a cryptic species found in such a tiny part of the world that we found that what’s what’s happening is, Some information would come out about the vaquita, maybe a new estimate of population or a new research study.
There would be a little bit of a tension about it. Everybody would say, Oh my gosh, it’s so terrible. The species is really endangered. We got to do something. And then pretty soon other issues would sort of come up and the vacated would kind of get forgotten. And so we didn’t want it to be this, you know, Species that was constantly getting forgotten.
And so we decided to, to try to create this organization to focus 100% of its effort on the vaquita and just have that as its primary or exclusive focus so that it wouldn’t get forgotten.
Lauren: Well, I think like that’s such an amazing thing. And I, and I can see from the Viva vaquita website, that there are so many people that clearly have the same feelings that you do that are involved in. Some of them are really young folks that are out there trying to spread that message and raise awareness.
Thomas: Yeah, one of the things that’s been really cool about Viva vaquita and it just, we didn’t really plan it this way. It just kind of worked out is that, you know, a number of folks, kids that were in their teens at the time, became really integrally, involved and ended up becoming, you know, major players, in what viva vaquita did and is doing. and so we’ve had several, of our, you know, sort of major, folks that are involved, that have been between when they started out between I think 12 and 14 or 15 years of age, which is really cool. And it’s really neat to see that we now live in a world where, you know, Um, kids that are, that are, you know, so young can actually be, you know, having a real influence on things and making a real difference in the world.
You know, when I was a kid of that age, you know, I had, you know, passions about environmental conservation and things like that, but the world wasn’t, you know, Such that I could really do the kind of things that kids can do now. and so that’s one of the things that’s been really kind of neat about the organization is we’ve been able to, you know, kinda help these, these youngsters that have this really strong passion, bring their energy and focus to the issue and, and really help us to move things along.
Lauren: Now I want to ask you a bit more. I know in 2016, there was, um, the vaquita CPR project and that was aimed at trying to collect vaquita from the ocean. Were, were you involved in that at all?
Thomas: Right. Yeah, that was actually 2017 is when the field effort actually occurred, uh, the fall of 2017. Um, although the planning of course, you know, occurred for a year and a half or two years before that, I wasn’t involved in the actual attempts to, capture, animals. but I wasn’t involved, As, as you may know, two animals were captured.
Um, the first animal showed very strong signs of stress and was released. the second animal also showed signs of stress and was released, but, it actually died before it could be released back into the ocean. And at the, at the time that the population was only considered to be about 30 animals or so, and the decision was made after those two animals, um, you know, kind of, the sort of lack of success with, with those captures that the capture operation should not be, continued. and so what happened then was that all of the, there was, there was a huge number of people and resources and vessels and everything else that were down in Mexico for that effort. And when they decided not to proceed with the captures, the decision was made to at least use some of these resources, try to try to learn more about the vaquita.
And so the effort kind of shifted focus from a capture operation to a, a research effort and a big focus on photo identification of individual animals. And I had. Done some previous work, doing some photo idea, work on vaquitas to us back in the, in the mid two thousands. And so at that point I became involved in and, and, you know, went down to Mexico and, and became involved in the effort at that point.
ID of vaquita
Lauren: with the photo identification, did you, uh, I guess what specifically are you looking at to identify the vaquita? I know with dolphins, you can use dorsal fins. Is it the same for vaquita?
Thomas: Yeah. Yeah, we, we use the, uh, the dorsal fin the shape of the dorsal fin as well as the, the little Nicks or cuts that occur primarily, usually on the, on the trailing edge or the back edge of the dorsal fin, just like in dolphins. you know, the, the leading edge of the front edge of the dorsal fin is relatively wide, but the trailing edge, the back edge, tapers to a very thin, like a paper thin, edge and that tatters very easily.
Um, and. The good thing is that that when animals get nicks cuts on the dorsal fin like that, it allows us to identify them as individuals, without having to put tags on them. And so we’ve been using that same technique with vaquitas that, you know, people have used with dolphins for many, many decades.
Um, and there’s also some, some scarring on the back and the, and the head area that can be used as well. But it’s primarily the dorsal fin shape and structure that we use for photo ID.
Lauren: With your experience being down and participating in the photo ID and the research. Um, was there any other efforts that the group did to try to protect the spaces that the vaquita were in? was part of the effort to do some education with, with folks to try to reduce that illegal fishing .
Working with Fishermen
Thomas: Yeah, there was, things, things have gotten more polarized since then, but back in 2017, they weren’t quite as bad as they have become in recent years. And, there were actually some fishermen that came out actually on the research vessel, both in an earlier survey as well as during that time. and the goal was to try to, you know, show the fishermen, What are the key to looks like because, some of the fishermen that fish down there, you know, we’re claiming that, that the vaquita was a mythical species and that the, efforts to try to save the species and limit the gillnet fishery were sort of a, American or, you know, US attempt to try to, damage the local fisheries and that kind of thing.
So there was this sort of, um, Kind of a negative feeling. I think about the research efforts and about the, the, the attempts to try to get the situation under control that a lot of the fishermen felt. And so there was this, interaction between the fishermen and the researchers and the conservationists, which, you know, it was hoped would, provide better understanding of both sides of the equation.
And also one thing that happened during the, the vaquita CPR project was that for over a month there was a lot of different, vessels and people down there. there were helicopters flying around. I mean, there was a lot of activity around there. And so there were probably a period where the illegal fishing, kind of. Came to a pretty much a halt during that time we believe. just because there were so many eyes on the water and, you know, the fishermen, obviously, you know, we’re trying to be cryptic at the time. And so at least it probably gave the population a little bit of a, you know, respite from that, heavy mortality.
Um, so that might’ve been one, you know, sort of an unintended, but, but very welcome, you know, positive benefit that might’ve come from that.
Lauren: Right. And you say that the relationship now is more strained. So based on what you just described is, is that what has led to the relationship becoming more strained as just that kind of conservation versus, um, harvesting.
Drug Cartels and Illegal Fishing
Is that what’s kind of strained it or is there, is there something else happening?
Thomas: I think it’s, I think it’s that, but I think the big factor that’s happened in the recent years is this connection and interaction with the, the drug cartels. you know, once we, because the drug cartels, at least initially they probably had really no involvement in the actual fishing activity. But the thing is that once the fishermen catch these fish and they cut out the bladder, they need to bring the bladder back to shore, freeze, dry it on shore in some kind of a.
Safe, you know, um, uh, secret, secret place, because of course it’s completely illegal to be in possession of this. And then what they do is they smuggle it usually through the border, into the United States, across the international border, and then load it in various ways in various smuggled ways onto, Airplanes and other, ways of getting it shipped over to China.
And so what happened is that the fishermen, um, I don’t know. Nobody really knows exactly how it happened, of course, but at some point the drug cartels and the fishermen, kind of became in contact and, the drug cartels started providing assistance to the fishermen to smuggle the bladders across the border.
And, you know, since that relationship has grown, obviously it’s meant that, you know, the relationship between the fishermen and researchers or scientists has gotten worse and worse because you know, the drug cartels aren’t interested in conservation, obviously they’re interested in one thing, making money and, um, you know, they, they have basically a resulted in a, extremely polarized situation that exists right now.
Lauren: for your experience of, of being a part of these projects and, you know, I can’t imagine how hard that is to see that on a regular basis of here’s all your study subjects or here’s an animal I care deeply about.
Current state of vaquita population and illegal fishing
Thomas: Yeah. And the, probably the, the, the sort of the. The low point for all of it came, last fall in October. I was part of a team of folks that was, that went down in late October to try to do, another survey of the vaquita and, and, and try to get information on how many animals might be left. And, For the first time ever, we saw hundreds and hundreds of gillnet boats during the daytime.
And previously the last couple of years, they had been mostly fishing at night, but, um, they were actually fishing out in the open in the daytime and they were completely and totally fishing with no attempt to hide what they were doing. And they were surrounding our vessel, our research vessel, as well as several, Mexican Navy vessels that were supposed to be enforcing the law.
And there was no real serious attempt at enforcement and it was clear that the fishermen knew that. And so that was, you know, to me, kind of the the low point of, of the situation and kind of an indication of how bad it’s gotten, uh, in that the Mexican government that the current administration in Mexico doesn’t seem to be taking issue very seriously and does not seem to be making a real concerted effort to try to enforce the law because this is completely and totally illegal what’s going on.
Um, and the fishermen know it, but they also know they can get away with it. And, um, you know, unfortunately they are.
Lauren: I’m so sorry to hear that. That’s yeah, I agree. That would be an absolute.
Thomas: Yeah, it was heartbreaking for, yeah. It was heartbreaking for all of us that were involved. Yeah, for sure.
Fture of Vaquita CPR
Lauren: I was going to ask, I know in following
the vaquita CPR project, that when the collecting was decided that it wouldn’t be successful, was there a decision made to try to protect the area that they live in as it was left to. I, I feel like I remember reading about, they’re trying to make it a no gillnet zone.
Well, there, well, there, there actually is, and has been for quite a few years, a exclusion zone for gillnets, that kind of covers the central part of the range of vaquita. and there’s been a couple of problems. One of which is it hasn’t really been very well marked. And so, sometimes the fishermen might claim that they don’t really know exactly where the boundaries are and they might be inside the exclusion zone without knowing it.
Um, but. You know, a bigger part of the issue is just, you know, kind of what I just mentioned that, you know, the fishermen now, not all of them, for sure, but many of them have, sort of taken this very, very adversarial approach to science and conservation and are really making no attempt whatsoever to, to avoid fishing within the, the exclusion zone and, just kind of ignoring the rules and regulations about, you know, protection of the vaquita.
So, um, that’s, you know, that’s kind of the extent of how things have gone in the last couple of years.
Ways that people can protect vaquita through purchasing (or not purchasing) seafood.
Lauren: what can people who are listening do, and is there anything that we can try to get excited about helping in some way to, to make a positive change.
Thomas: Yeah. Now that the capture, operations have been, you know, kind of canceled, the best hope that we have, is really to try to convince the Mexican government to enforce the laws that are already in place. I mean, it it’s, it doesn’t require any new laws or regulations, you know, they’re already there on the books, basically.
They just need to. Seriously enforce those laws. And, you know, the current, like I said, the current administration has made it very clear that they’re at this point, they’re not interested in doing that. And so a big part of what myself, in our organization and many of the other NGOs that are involved in this have been trying to do is to use various, political and legislative methods to try to kind of forced the Mexican government kind of forced their hand. Um, and it hasn’t been very successful so far, but we’re, you know, we’re, we’re continuing trying, and that involves a couple of different things, including an embargo on Mexican seafood products, shrimp in particular, You know, embargo with those product coming into the U S so that, you know, because the U S is a big, importer of seafood from Mexico, and it’s a multi billion, billion dollar industry.
So the idea is to kind of hit them, you know, in the pocketbook and say, look, you know, if you’re not going to protect this purpose and you’re going to sit there and let it go extinct, you know, we’re not going to import seafood from your country anymore. Um, so that has been a big. Focus of what has been going on in recent years.
Lauren: when it comes to your seafood, the type of seafood that you’re choosing. Is a really powerful thing that you can do. You can make an informed decision about where your seafood is coming from, um, how it was caught, uh, what time of year it was caught. Was there any bycatch involved? Um, couple of the programs you can keep an eye out for are seafood watch that’s one Marine stewardship council. That’s another, uh, the ocean wise seafood program is another, and these are all independent groups that have been done research into the types of seafood that are recommended. So kind of like a green go for it or not recommend it as in just totally avoided things like bluefin, tuna.
They’re also highly endangered. Probably shouldn’t be eating bluefin tuna. So trying to make that informed decision is a really good way that you have power and you can use it to protect animals. Like vaquita,
Thomas: Right. And the big, big one really is. I mean, it applies to the vaquita as well as to other, you know, similar species. The big one is, you know, when you buy your seafood, uh, whether it’s from the restaurant or from a fish market or wherever, try as much as possible to avoid buying any seafood that’s caught with gillnets gillnets are generally a very non-selective method of fishing and, you know, and.
Not in every case, but in most cases they have very, very serious bycatch issues. So it’s really good to try to avoid gillnet caught seafood. Um, if you can do it at all.
um, but a bigger part of the issue I think, is that, you know, we know that these changes that are going on in the Gulf with gillnet fishing and other things that are going on. They’re not just affecting the vaquita, they’re affecting a lot of other species. And so all the work that’s going on right now, even though it may very well fail to save the vaquita. Um, we, there’s a lot of reason for us to continue doing that work because we still have a very good chance of saving a lot of these other species that are eventually going to be in the same, in the same boat. So to speak, um, maybe in 10 years or 20 years, if we don’t do something.
So, you know, we, we need to. Figure out ways of solving these problems before we lose, you know, other species as well. And so that’s, you know, even though it’s kind of depressing, as you mentioned, working in such a situation where, you know, things have been going so badly, um, I still, you know, can maintain some optimism that, you know, we’ve got a lot of other things that are, we’re saving out there and, and, you know, we need to keep, our efforts up in order to have a chance of saving those other species as well.
So there’s a good reason to get up every day and continue the fight.
Lauren: I’m really glad you worded it that way. Cause I. I really like the hope that’s there. I really appreciate that. And as you say that, looking at protecting other species that’s that’s really well said, Thomas, I really appreciate that.
If there was one thing that you wanted people to take away from your experience, what would that one thing be?
Thomas: Uh, I would say, the the need to identify first of all, and to then focus on coming up with solutions to these kinds of problems. relatively early on, rather than waiting till the last minute, because what’s happened with the vaquita situation. As I mentioned earlier in the interview, we’ve kind of known that they were a rare and probably a declining species for over 60 years now.
And yet it’s only been in the last 12 to 15 years that there’s been any real, you know, any real efforts to really do anything about the problem. and one of the reasons why things aren’t going so well, maybe that we just waited too long in the situation got too bad. And, you know, the situation was already quite polarized by the time that people started really trying to find equitable solutions that everybody could live with.
And so I think that the take home message for me is, you know, we need to identify these kinds of conservation problems early on. And we need to start focusing on solutions when the animals are abundant enough, so that we have a real chance for success. And so we can actually develop solutions that don’t have to have such draconian consequences for the, you know, the people involved.
Um, so I think that would probably be my major, take home message.
Lauren: Well, I really appreciate that. Thank you so much for your time, Thomas. I really appreciate you sitting down with us and hope you have a great rest of your day.
Thomas: Thank you. I’m glad to be here. And, and, uh, um, thanks for all the work that you do as well.
Lauren: I’m really grateful that Thomas took the time to sit down and answer all of my questions. He really took a lot of time out of his day, which I’m very grateful for. And if you, as a listener are thinking that you still have tons of questions that I haven’t even touched yet. Hopefully I answered them in the upcoming episodes.
So I highly recommend you check out our website for this podcast and this episode. All of that information will be there and I encourage you to share, get it out there. We want more people aware and protecting vaquita as possible as always a huge shout out to Marcus Wernicke for helping me edit this episode, uh, shout out to Derek Jang for helping edit these episodes.
And I’m so grateful for all of you listeners because. I’m going to talk about this stuff anyway. I love it. And I’m glad that there’s people out there listening to. So thank you for your time. Stay tuned for more episodes on vaquita coming up soon, and we hope you have a wonderful day and as always go fluke and learn something.