Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho has been working for decades to save the vaquita, the world’s smallest cetacean. In this episode, he tells Lauren about the reality of his conservation work in Mexico and the unique challenges of trying to save an animal that can only be found in a tiny patch of the Gulf of California.
Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho has been working for decades to save the vaquita, the world's smallest cetacean. In this episode ─ part two of a mini-series about the vaquita ─ he tells Lauren about the reality of his conservation work in Mexico and the unique challenges of trying to save an animal that can only be found in a tiny patch of the Gulf of California.
References & Further Reading
Host & Executive Producer: Lauren Hartling
Guest: Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho
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
Lauren: Hello, and welcome to another episode of not a dolphin. My name is Lauren, joining you once again, and today we have part two of a four part series that’s been created all about vaquita and the reason we’re doing this is because of vaquita are the most endangered Marine mammal on the planet. I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Lorenzo Rojas Bracho. He is a member of the National Commission of Protected Areas in Mexico, as well as the head of marine mammal, Conservation and Research for the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change in Mexico.…
Lauren: Hello, and welcome to another episode of not a dolphin. My name is Lauren, joining you once again, and today we have part two of a four part series that’s been created all about vaquita and the reason we’re doing this is because of vaquita are the most endangered Marine mammal on the planet. I had the opportunity to interview Dr. Lorenzo Rojas Bracho. He is a member of the National Commission of Protected Areas in Mexico, as well as the head of marine mammal, Conservation and Research for the National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change in Mexico. It’s a mouthful and I’m so excited that we had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Lorenzo.
Uh, he has had the opportunity to work with and study vaquita since the early nineties, he has. A wealth of knowledge, and I’m really excited to share it with you here today. So sit back, get comfortable. We’re going to jump right in.
Lorenzo: thanks so much for the invitation. I’m very pleased to be here.
Lauren: Thank you so much for meeting with us online and our, a safe distance chatting here. Also, you did say you’re from Encinitas?
Lorenzo: Yeah. Encinitas in Baja, California, Mexico. That’s just a few hours from San Diego, California too. So people know where I am more or less.
Lauren: Um, so I wanted to, first of all, uh, ask you Lorenzo, uh, how did you get the name, mr. Vaquita?
Lorenzo: I’m not so sure how that happened.
Lorenzo: I guess I’ve been just working too many decades with vaquita and trying to help, uh, with vaquita and other small cetaceans side. I’m not so sure who started or how it, once I remember it was in a newspaper interview once and
Lauren: okay. It’s a good nickname.
Lorenzo: it was a bit surprising
Lauren: And so you say from, from decades of experience of working with the vaquita. So just how long have you been working to protect these animals?
Lorenzo: it’s a bit painful too. Count backwards. Uh, let’s say I did my PhD
Lauren: Okay. What was your PhD on?
Lorenzo: It was an oceanography, but I did risk factors affecting the vaquita that included a good bunch of, uh, genetic research, uh, which I don’t do anymore. and I got my degree in, well, 1998, probably. So I kind of started in 1995 or 93 or around those, uh, on my thesis.
Lauren: And so you’re looking at risk factors. What, in 1993 were the risk factors then for vaquita.
Lorenzo: Well, th the issue I think comes in, uh, The seventies, uh, Bope Ronell, who was part of my PhD committee. And he was the head of the protected species, division at the Southwest fishery science center in La Jolla. He made a list of risk factors that could be affecting vaquita. I mean, that’s the seventies that’s long, long, long ago before I even thought of being a biologist probably. And, he listed what he thought should be investigated. And among them was the lack of flow of the Colorado river pollution, uh, traffic, uh, gillnet fishing. And I can remember, I mean, it, wasn’t a really long list of probably eight to 10 potential risk factors.
Lorenzo: And among those risk factors, he thought was inbreeding.
Lorenzo: Yeah, it was just suspicion that, because at that time, I mean, there were many people who said that, uh, vaquita was extinct
Lauren: even back in the seventies.
Lorenzo: back in the seventies. If I remember a newspaper thing, if vaquita exists or something like, uh, I try to. Work on the genetics and see if there was a, an issue about, uh, vaquita inbreeding.
And then we checked at pollution and, uh, fisheries and the lack of flow of the Colorado river.
Lauren: And did you find.
Lorenzo: yeah, we published a paper in probably 98 or so. And, uh, after the risk factor analysis, we came to the conclusion that the factor that would be could lead of vaquita to, to extinction was bycatch in gillnets.
And there was no issues about pollution. It’s, it’s a very clean animal because there’s no flow of the Colorado river. There’s very few pollutants that get into the operable.
Lorenzo: one of the cleanest blubbers in the world. And just recently together with Francis gone and we are going to, well, it in press Now it’s a paper that deals specifically with, uh, with pollution and how clean the vaquita is. And, uh, then we published a paper on the genetics. It’s not a risk factor. vaquita has been surviving with low genetic variability. For decades or, I mean, for thousands of years. So it’s clean in the sense that there is no, it’s not down to extinction because inbreeding or anything like that.
Lauren: I got very excited when he mentioned genetics and I had lots of questions about the low genetic variability of a vaquita. And if you are like me and you have so many questions, I promise you, we are going to dive incredibly deeply into genetics in the fourth part of this entire series. So hold onto your genetics questions.
right. So it’s just environmental. As in where they live. That’s the risk factor for their survival.
Lorenzo: Yeah. And when the pollution wasn’t an issue and, uh, either the lack of flow with the Colorado river, This argument has been surviving because it’s very good for politicians and some people within the fisheries administration and, and fishermen. this is a favorite spot in Mexico. If you can blame it to the US, you have to believe until the US and probably that’s similar in Canada.
Actually, we have, as they see a problem between in between us. So, the issue then was when we looked at all the oceanographic graphic data, it was very clear that that the upper Gulf of California it’s a very productive area. So despite there’s a lack of flow of the Colorado river or reduce flow of the Colorado river. There are fertilizing mechanisms within the upper gulf that bring nutrients to the surface and then the whole change of primary productivity, secondary productivity triggers. And the vaquitas are healthy. We’ve never seen emaciated animals. All of them produce calves, all the necropsies show animals that have full stomach.
And there’s nothing that indicates that there is lack of food for the animals. But when I see it, it’s an attractive argument for Mexicans is because the US uses most of the water of the Colorado river or the many Mexicans forget. It’s also used in Mexico, not far away from where I am. It’s very nice and very patriotic to blame it to the US that because they use most or they divert most of the water of the Colorado river for agriculture and urban use, then it’s to blame to the US that vaquita is declining. So that’s, uh, something we have, I mean, it just recently a Congressman said that it’s again, the Colorado river and not, uh, bycatch.
Lorenzo: it helps also because then government and organizations, they don’t have to deal with bycatch which is really hard.
I mean, you have to come with alternative fishing gear or you have to develop them to make sure fishermen make a living, et cetera. But if you blame it to the US, then you’ll do nothing. And probably one of the reasons that vaquita will go extinct is exactly, that a Fishers authorities have taken very seriously. Protecting the vaquita just by doing what they’re supposed to do, manage. Oh, fisheries properly.
Lauren: Because the totoaba fishery, is an illegal fishery there’s a lot more, um, I guess, almost danger in involved in it because the drug cartels are now involved in helping move the swim bladders, so I’m finding like that must be part of the conversation right?
Lorenzo: Oh, it’s a big issue. what it’s important to make clear is that, uh, the population vaquitas population has been declining since yeah. Uh, probably the fifties, but when we started working with vaquita, our first abundance estimate was less than 600 animals and the population will had been declining until 2012, more or less about 7.3, 7.8% per year. Totoaba fisheries started last century in, in mix in the upper gulf. Okay. In the communities in the upper Gulf, like San Felipe and the Baca California site and Santa Clara on the Sonora side, it’s just exactly where the Gulf of California ends developed.
Or we were founded because fishermen from the South, were moving to the North, uh, following the totoaba run, or they go to the upper Gulf and to reproduce there. And so it has been an important fishery, but it was closing, it went extinct. Basically the fishery had to close down because commercially it was extinct. And then suddenly there was a resurgence of the totoaba, these large scale fisheries, mainly fueled by the black markets in China and Hong Kong. And so when these started it’s when really the population collapsed. and we’ve lost since, uh, 2013, probably or 15, probably 99% of the population. we have less than 19 vaquitas now our best estimate is nine, but it’s really hard to estimate the number of animals when you have so few animals. So the minimum population size it’s six the largest just might be 20. And I think our kind of point estimate would be around nine animals or 10. So that’s what we’re facing. And we don’t know what trigger in exactly this time, that the amount for swim bladders in China, in Hong Kong. But what happened? These brought into the upper gulf organized crime from China and Mexico, and they worked together to fish and then traffic, the totoaba swim bladders to, Hong Kong and mainland China.
Lorenzo: And that’s what’s really is driving the vaquita to extinction it’s been almost impossible to control the, the illegal fishery but basically it, if Mexico had done its conservation homework on time 30 years ago, then this unexpected single event would have not driven the population to extinction. And that’s one of the lessons that you were asking me.
Lorenzo: don’t do your work on time, then these unexpected events in this case, demand for swim bladders drives your population just fast, as quick as
I mean, just really fast.
Lauren: It’s um, it’s absolutely heartbreaking and I don’t even think heartbreaking is the right word. It’s I mean, devastating and I can’t imagine, you know, for yourself, this is your. Life’s work that you’ve, you’ve studied an animal that when you started studying it, it was already threatened. And here you’ve seen this progression.
Um, I was going to ask, and maybe it goes back to the genetics you mentioned is what was it that got you interested in focusing all of your efforts on vaquita in the first place?
Lorenzo: It’s a, it’s a kind of a strange story.
Lauren: I like strange stories.
Lorenzo: so I wrote a term paper for my PhD on, on vaquita. And it wasn’t published as a book chapter in a strange thing. It’s the, the US association of. engineers, or it seems to be well known, uh, association in the US and they have this periodical publication. So they did one on aquatic conservation, for whatever reason engineers got interested in. So my term paper was accepted and it was published. And then at the same time, uh, I was working, my PhD was on humpbacks.
Lorenzo: uh, colleague of mine started doing his PhD. Exactly the same thing I was doing.
And they talked to my advisor at that time in San Diego and did decent. And he said, well, you have that paper on vaquita. Why don’t you just switch to vaquita at the same time, Barbara and I was coming to be the head of the protected resources division in Southwest fishery science center. And he. Was he interested in vaquita. So that was like a good thing to be there. And when he came, he called me and said, Lorenzo, you have to do something with vaquita. And then in a newspaper, uh, the Sacramento bee, and it’s a small paper. It’s a very good paper that they have won several Pulitzer pricers, and they had a very good piece on the Gulf of California. And in that article, they called two boycotts, boycott, Mexico, and embargoes to seafood because Mexico was not doing their job with vaquita similar to, with the tuna dolphin issue that Mexico’s, uh, from selling to an outside, uh, to the U S and Europe. And so all those three things together, uh, made me move to vaquita biologist and a Marine mammal biologist. Everybody’s interested into vaquita, I guess, but certainly to me, it was very close and Mexico had been a champion of the marine mammal conservation. I think Mexico had the first, uh, large, well sanctuaries for great whales in the Pacific coast in Baja.
And he had played a key role to have, uh, elephant seals recover and also where the Guadalupe fur seals. I thought, Oh, we’ve done a good job through the years. I bet. I bet you, we can save vaquita. And certainly I thought we had, we were going well, uh, like liking in 2008 or nine, we were able to convince the government to come with a program that reduced fishing effort in the upper gulf.
And the population declined slowed down from 7.3 7.52 to 6.4% in a few years. So we thought we
Lauren: That’s a win.
Lorenzo said the excitement of slowing down the population declined was short-lived. Once drug cartels got involved, moving totoaba swim bladders to China and Hong Kong. He says that’s when we lost the population from when he has started working with vaquita to now, he says they’ve lost 99% of the population.
Lorenzo: That’s it. It’s damn sad.
Lauren: I’m so sorry. And the, the two different groups working together, you say that the Chinese crime rings and the Mexican fishermen who are, who are collecting these w um, when did that kind of start? So that 6.4% that it had been dropped to. When did it start to go back up again? Was that.
Lorenzo: So that was, uh, I think it was, uh, 20. I think it was probably 2011. I had a call from a fisherman telling me that something was going wrong in the upper Gulf. And then I had a call from a few other fishermen and friends in the upper Gulf and they told me, you know, there’s something really strange happening because we’re seeing young fishers with tons of money buying new trucks.
I mean, this fancy trucks that. I’m sure you and I can not buy one together.
Lorenzo: And, uh, and it seems that someone is paying high prices for totoaba. At that point, we didn’t know it was a swim bladder. It just was totoaba.
Lauren: Oh, okay. So they were still taking the whole fish.
Lorenzo: I think they were already taking only the swim bladder, but at that point, the info was not very. Very clear then by 2013 the government had the presidential commission for the recovery of vaquita. And in a meeting, we told that to the minister at that time that there was something fishy going around and that he should pay attention, but he said, we should have to solve first vaquita.
Then we solve totoaba and we’d say to explain to him, but he was not a very good probably not a very smart man. And he said, no, no, no, we have to solve one first. And the second. And then we told him, I mean, historically the main fisheries that has killed vaquita I mean, you have other fisheries, but if you don’t control totoaba, it doesn’t matter if you control the other features, vaquita will go extinct.
Lorenzo: Anyway, he didn’t pay much attention to us and that’s where we are. And. Just to give you an example, how attractive became to fishers. There’s a fishermen that made $116,000 in one fishing day.
Lauren: Oh, my gosh.
Lorenzo: They were paying them for the swim bladder, which is used in traditional medicine, in China, in Hong Kong, from 5,000 US dollars a kilo to the one I know I’m not, that’s what a fishermen told me.
I don’t know if that’s true, but he said that the highest price he knew about it was 10,000 US dollars. For a kilogram, then it goes to, China and in, there was a very good report by then, like environmental investigation agency and they reported prices, you know, option for totoaba swim bladder up $200,000 dollars
Lauren: Oh, my gosh.
Lorenzo: totoaba swim bladder became more expensive than cocaine, more expensive than gold. More expensive than anything else. So fisherman’s were making tons of money. I mean, if you imagine 116,000 us dollars in one day,
Lorenzo: much do I, uh, I mean, again, we put together incomes probably we don’t make it a hundred thousand us dollars a year,
Lauren: Yeah, man.
Lorenzo: so there was so much money and little risk because if they caught you. A fishing totoaba he will get a slap in your hand and say, just go away and do it again. And we fought very hard to change the law and make, or, uh, illegal fishing, equivalent to a major felony or organized crime and the law changed, but he didn’t change well enough to stop the illegal fishers from going up.
And of course now it’s a organized crime is controlling the upper gulf. Uh, totoaba fishery and fishermen are telling me that at they are so controlling other fisheries by now. It’s uh, so it has, I mean, I never expected this would happen. I never would expect that I would be in these delicate and risky situation, but this is where we are. We try to do our best, our best hasn’t been enough for me.
Lauren: when you’re, you’re talking about your relationship with the, with the fishermen. So some of the fishermen who are contacting you and saying, we’re noticing a change. Have you found that, that relationship with fishermen, I mean, in your whole time of working on vaquita, have you been able to rely on that relationship or do you find that that has changed over the years as well?
Lorenzo: no it’s been improving actually. It’s it’s uh, So when we started going there, there is this fishermen who, which everybody loves, uh, uh, a Javier Valverde. We call him El Chino, that’s his nickname, and he’s been a fundamental fisher to every biologist that goes to the upper gulf. And once there’s a something that deals with, uh, with the oceans, he helps them.
So he helped the first researchers with totoaba, and he has helped people that does sea birds and. And we got to him and he helped us through him. We met other fishers and we built a very good relation. So many of the fishers have, or work with us in different projects. So we have a project removing gillnets, illegal gillnets.
And so we have a fishermen participating and then we do the acoustic monitoring of vaquita, and we have fishermen helping with us. And when we did vaquita CPR to try to catch vaquitas, as we also had fishers helping us . So we have created these, uh, about 30 or 40 fishers and they organize themselves in ABC fishing, which basically means alternative fishing of the upper Gulf of California.
Lauren: Oh, nice.
Lorenzo: And I’m part of the board of directors. So yeah, it’s been an, we have a very good relation. If you look at my mobile phone, I think there is no week, which I don’t have a call from fishers, but as, as things got even worse than worse than worst fishers that we had of not a very close relation or even fishers that it was not a good relation, it has improved now, but we are in the same boat.
We are victims. Of these, uh, terrible situation. And, uh, and we talk to each other. And for example, we drafted a letter, uh, two years ago or a year and a half ago, all the fishers and myself, uh, asking the government for support and, and saying, this is the things we have to do step by step. And, uh, uh, two or three days ago, we had another call then.
So looking at the options of testing, alternative fishing gear, the situation of the fishers is horrible. They are victims of the inefficiency through the years of the Mexican government. I mean, decades of not doing, uh, their are job and that’s another, another lesson that, uh, I think we can get from vaquita and we don’t see vaquita.
At least we hope that. It helps, uh, for other species. But I think from the lessons learned, you have situations or conditions, when it’s very hard to save a species, when you have a governance problem, I usually say it’s a governance problem and it’s evil to incorruption. And Mexico is one of the most corrupt countries.
I mean, it’s improving no doubt, but still we are If you look at, uh, The list of, uh, international transparency, you will see that, uh, we are in, in the red zone of, uh, least, or the most corrupt of countries actually. So, but anyway, what I’m trying to get to is that in Mexico, illegal fishing, there are different estimates, but some people learn or some organization, just the media, but even 60% of the national Mexican production comes from illegal fishing.
Lorenzo: the highest might be lower, but whatever it is, it’s pretty high.
Lauren: That’s shockingly high.
Lorenzo: It’s shockingly high and governance in Mexico, according to the world bank, uh, five or six years ago has, was bad, has gone from zero to minus point 12. So it’s getting worst
Lorenzo: And we know that low governance implies, more illegal fishing. And so. When you have that in one smaller, like the upper gulf, it’s very difficult to implement any conservation actions or any bycatch or any alternative here development.
When you have decades of lacking proper fisheries governance and by governance, of fishers is, I mean, the old, the sum of all the elements that are. Used to make a proper management of fishery. So you’d have the legal aspects, the social, the economic, the political technical. If you lose it, you don’t have that. It’s really hard to implement any conservation actions.
Lauren: Well, that actually goes to my, my next question is I know in some parts of the world, you know, with whale sharks and humpback whales, as you mentioned, there’s a sea turtles. There’s tons of species that have benefited because work was done to show that there. The animals are more valuable, alive than dead.
And I think the example off the top of my head is that, Oh, a whale shark and its lifetime is worth a million dollars versus I think it was $10,000. If you were to, to, to bring it in that one time, I’m wondering has there been any talk of trying to look at the the value benefit, the dollar benefit of, uh, vaquita alive?
Lorenzo: It, it that’s hard because, uh, so let me put you an example, how difficult that is with vaquita.
Lorenzo: So some years ago we had a call from, uh, CNN and they wanted to do a piece about vaquita. And so we met, I flew to Mexico City and we met there with some guy that wanted to do, I don’t, I couldn’t remember if he was a CNN reporter or he was freelance and trying to get a piece on CNN.
But anyway, the idea was to have something on CNN about vaquita and I show him pictures and all the pictures we had at that time were very few of live animals and far away. And most of the, let’s say the close ups were of dead vaquitas that had been entangled in gillnets.
Lorenzo: And he asked me, I mean, did they leap out of the water or, I mean, what’s, what can they do to attract the public? Because if they don’t leave out of the water or they don’t jump or do what dolphins do, then it’s very hard to make any piece for, for a news magazine or, or for TV. And he said, it’s very hard for the American public to watch our dead animals. This will not fly. These will not be a good story. And I told you, I mean, at that time can remember which war was the US involved. And you could see in CNN images of human beings being shot and killed.
Lorenzo: But having dead vaquitas was a terrible thing. So we got in a nasty discussion, as you can imagine , but anyway, because vaquita has no, they, you don’t have a call that show off or they don’t have these real behavior, like humpbacks or grey whales or dolphins, then it’s and it’s very, it’s one of the most difficult animals to work with. I mean, in terms of cetaceans or marine mammals, they are really hard. They are very cryptic. They are shy, they don’t approach things. So it’s not easy to bring tourists. And we don’t know how tourists would affect vaquita because the population was declining.
So we couldn’t dare to say, Oh, let’s bring tourists.
Lorenzo: it worst. I mean, they go away from noises. You can see vaquitas when we’re on the boat, they can react to the presence of our boat, one kilometer away from her boat. So that was hard, what we try to do. And we brought some of our economists together.
There was something interesting when we started to, and I was trying to get economists to work with us. We couldn’t find any economies that wanted to do it because it’s isolated region. There’s no fresh water. Uh, there are no highways but it was really isolated so they couldn’t imagine what to do, but the idea with when I was able to get some economists how much would it cost to Mexico?
If vaquita went extinct, what would be the international impact? It could be embargo to fisheries products or boycotts, or the, prestige of Mexico internationally for letting a, an animal go extinct. And there were several, estimates. It was millions. and one of the reasons that I got to this and created my Marine mammal group here in Ensenada was so we’re sitting at the beginning when the Sacramento we had these boycott and embargoes to Mexico.
Lorenzo: One of the things we were motivated to work with to vaquita was to prevent that to happen because in Ensenada we had suffered the tuna dolphin embargo from the U S. So I didn’t want that to happened again,
Lauren: if you’re wondering what the tuna dolphin embargo is. I’m going to try to explain. First of all, you have to understand that dolphins in the ocean do spend time with tuna. They eat similar things and research shows us that they will spend time with each other to reduce the chances they get eaten by predators.
Now, what happened was in the nineties, people became aware that dolphins were being caught in fishing nets meant for tuna, that tuna you buy in the can on the shelf that now has a dolphin safe label. That label never used to be there. In fact, since the fishery had been around, it was estimated that over 6 million dolphins were caught in the purse seine nets alone, and the purse seine net, that was the type of net use to catch tuna.
Because people were obviously upset that dolphins were being caught unnecessarily in these nets in what’s known as bycatch, public pressure mounted. And in 1972, the United States created the Marine mammal protection act. Part of that act is to protect Marine mammals. And so United States, fishermen had to find ways of catching tuna without catching dolphin.
They also impose this on other countries and the embargo specifically refers to the time that the United States stopped purchasing seafood from Mexico. So to put pressure on them, to create better fishing practices, to reduce their dolphin catch.
According to the NOAA website after litigation, the regulations to protect dolphins had been enacted by 1980. The kill had declined from about 500,000 animals per year to 20,000 dolphins per year.
I will also point out that if you do see that dolphin safe logo on seafood, it historically has only meant that dolphins were not being caught in those nets, but it doesn’t include other species caught as bycatch. It’s important reminder to us that when we are choosing to buy seafood, that we do our research and try to make sure we are choosing sustainable seafood, wherever possible.
Lorenzo: And now there is an embargo from the US to fishing products from the upper Gulf. And this embargo may extend to other fisheries. And then you have the trilateral agreement and I just was reading in the newspaper recently that there could be also an impact because of the vaquita situation to these trilateral or, uh, organization, uh, I mean, free trade agreement. So at the end, this is going to cost Mexico millions, or I hope not, but, uh, that’s where we are.
So we don’t have, like, when you say what’s the value, there are many papers also in the value of. Whales the value as part of the ecosystem and how the role to prevent, uh, climate change and all those things.
Lorenzo: we cannot do that for vaquita, but we can, we were able to work on these, uh, the impact, the economic impact in Mexico’s. Anyway, we did that in there’s a paper we had out and it seems nobody’s read it.
Lauren: I’m glad you kind of say it that way. Cause you’re right. You have animals out there like a vaquita or even Harbor porpoise is like we get up here and they aren’t the leaping jumping, singing. Obvious. Oh my gosh, there it is kind of animals, but even, even though they’re not show off, they have just as much right.
To live safe in the oceans. So I think that’s, that’s actually a really fascinating way then to show the cost of what, what it’s going to cost you if they’re gone.
Lorenzo: Yeah. And I, and we know that from, uh, I mean, this is one of the cost of corruption. And again, if you look at some of the other small cetacean species, that could be the next, uh, the species to be. At the brink of extinction. and if you look at the least of, or the map that shows the most corrupt countries from Transparency International, you can see that many of these species or population that will be facing serious conservation actions or problems in the future are in countries that are similar to Mexico with. Corruption problems are in almost every sense of the regular life and, and species disappear more quickly in countries with worse governance scores. It seems to be the case and when corruption. Pays better than conservation, then it undermines any conservation action. And we’re seeing that life in here in the corruption piece so much better than, than conservation. So if you’ve made from 5,000 to 10,000 us dollars for one kilogram, probably less by now, the price has gone down, but still it’s very high. So corruption allows illegal fishing and this will eclipse any legal fishing or the development of alternative fishing gear or the implementation or compensation schemes or anything.
Lauren: Well, that makes sense.
Lorenzo: So, uh, we have to look at those countries and I’m part of a group working in different, uh, Places on these issues because we start better start thinking. What are we going to do with those species? And I think we have to look at, uh, very, you know, we have to take the reason we have to be audacious. I mean, we tried to catch vaquitas and bring them to a safe haven. In, in sea pens in the upper goal and, uh, sadly all of our efforts. I mean, we had 90 experts from all over the world. Veterinarians, economists, uh, you name it, whatever you, people, you can imagine, you need to catch a vaquita or an animal and bring it in safe haven and be able to keep it there.
Lauren: I didn’t realize the team was that large 90
Oh, he was, yeah. We had, uh, 90 people from nine different countries. Not all of them at the same, same in the upper Gulf, but it was a huge, huge, effort. And we had to do that, , we were seeing how vaquita was just disappearing. And I think by 2016 and early 2017, we then planned for these fieldwork for the vaquita. Conservation protection and recovery like vaquita CPR. And when we propose that through the international committee for the recovery of vaquita, and we had big discussions within the committee, but at the end, we were all very clear that the risks we were facing, but vaquitas could die in the process of catching them or transporting them or housing them ─ we didn’t know really how to evaluate that risk. But we thought this risk was, uh, greatly overweighed by the certain depth of the animals being entangled in illegal gillnet fishing nets in the wild.
Lauren: so that’s kind of the angle now is just really focusing on getting the information out there that if this illegal gillnet fishery was stopped, you have healthy animals that are reproducing and they would be safer without that gillnet fishery.
Lorenzo: Yeah. I mean all the genetic work and we just have a recently a paper out, you know? a paper that shows why vaquita is not jumped to extinction because of genetic issues. And, uh, I say many times that vaquita is very resourceful animal. If you stop killing vaquitas, they will thrive. They will come back, not in our lifetime, but they will come back. So we’d have to stop killing them, but, uh, trying to link this to what we’re talking before, if you are in the same situation in your country, as with vaquita, trying to catch animals and bring them into some semi captivity, it’s a potentially valuable, but it’s a very complex tool to recover small cetaceans. And you have to start building the capacity for these a captive or semi captive curve, years, years before you should be initiated, uh, to go there because we did w we needed it urgently and we did it. And that’s another lesson. I mean, we better start looking at what do we need to know to make sure we can save these species because we know terrestrial animals that have been taken from the wild and then made a great, program of semi captivity or captivity. And then they were returned to the wild. And this is certainly 10 thousands, more and more complicated with small cetaceans, but that’s something that has to be seriously considered.
I’m not saying that’s the way forward that you have to do it in every case. But it’s part of your toolbox for conservation. And we have so many other cases in countries with similar problems as Mexico, that it’s clear. You have to look at asumptions and make serious analysis. And if that’s the case, then you should go for it.
And if it’s not the case, then hope that this will not go through things like vaquita. And, uh, I mean, we had a call from colleagues that we like very much in Bangladesh and India, and they were telling us a year ago that. There were some Chinese arriving to their places, looking for fish, similar to totoaba get their swim bladder.
Lauren: So they’re already trying to find the next
Lorenzo: trying to find the next one. Is that going to happen? I don’t know, we have to learn what happened here with vaquita. But I’ll say thing are some of the lessons of vaquita that we really have to take seriously. And if vaquita goes extinct, let’s all at least this example of vaquita or this case of look, you’ve got lots to prevent extinction of other species.
and yeah, and, and so they did a their job and Barb and I have been working together for, I mean, since I was a student, I went to her office to ask her something that with genetics and statistics
30 years ago, but now we’ve been working through the years together. We’re partners in crime, but we’ve talked many times lately when should we have started to think about the selection of catching the animals? And, and Barbara was saying, well, should we have begun as soon as gillnets mortality was recognized that it was not sustainable. And that was during the time we started working together a bit later than that, 1997, we knew that the population at that time was less than 600 and a lot of animals were dying or should have we started when we estimated that we have lost 57% of the population in 2008 and we had 245 animals left. I don’t have an answer to that, but I do have, I’m very clear that you need careful planning and. You have to go through a phase conservations.
interventions as your population’s declined from the thousands to the hundreds of individuals. And you have, you need a system where we’re working on a paper. I don’t know if it’s where we are going to finish the ever, but it’s, it’s like a streetlight where you have green, then you have yellow. And when you’re in yellow, then you better start working on
Lorenzo: Then you have right when you’re in red, it’s probably too late, which is the. The case of vaquita, but you’d need, you need to work, start working those when you have hundreds of animals and it’s a steep learning curve, how to do that, we didn’t have the chance to, to do it. And I have some of my best friends and mentors, uh, that they tried.
monk seals in Hawaii and the first attempt the animals died. And then of course, talking to other people, they had the same experience. The first attempts. Usually you lose a lot of animals, even with totoaba, which sounds a bit easier than vaquita. They lost most of the little baby fish when they started trying to produce them in captivity.
Lorenzo: So, uh,
Lauren: There’s learning curve,
Lorenzo: There’s a very steep learning curve. And it’s a very hard one because when the animal dies in your hands, I mean, probably the most painful experience I got in my professional life.
Lauren: I want to ask you, um, you mentioned that you’re a part of a group working in multiple countries.
Lorenzo: well, it it’s a group. We, after the vaquita, after we learned, when we w w the whole tragedy with vaquita happened, uh, many of us got together and started thinking, so what, what, uh, what should we do now? And so we got together, Barb Taylor, Cynthia Smith, who was one of my closest friends. And we were together leading the vaquita CPR effort and together with, uh, a friend from Germany and Lorenzo Vanpherson. We put together a group of Marine mammal experts and to look at what we call, a one plan approach. It’s basically you combined ex situ and in situ approaches for the conservation of small cetaceans. And, and we got together in Germany and. There’s one plan approach was developed by the IUCNs conservation planning specialist groups. So we look at the succeeded in situ options and, uh, and look at which species or populations or so species in the world, we think they are going to be in need of such an approach.
So we identified them. We invited the experts to this workshop and we just finished the report and it’s going to be published pretty soon.
Lauren: Lorenzo explained that working to protect these small cetaceans that were identified at this meeting includes protecting them in ex situ situations, which means the animals would need to be removed from their home in the ocean and cared for, bred, raised in human care. Which means that you will actually be working hands on with folks who are from accredited zoos and aquariums, who have hands on experience, working with, caring for, doing medical care for small cetaceans.
And he explored some of the challenges that they will have to consider moving forward with that.
Lorenzo: It’s a very controversial issue because there are many people that are against, catching vaquitas, or catching anything and bring it to captivity, especially small cetaceans, and that we face a lot of people against our approach. And it was not easy on the attacks we received before, especially after the vaquita died.
I mean, that was a painful, we were accused of everything you can imagine. And the argument for many people was that. If we went through that route to catch the animals, then that would jeopardize the in situ conservation actions. And it didn’t happen. Anything. The lessons from our vaquita case is that managers and decision makers must be convinced that to avoid the situation, you’re required to develop in this action plans.
Like the one I mentioned this one action plan.
Lorenzo: That needs to consider both in situ and ex situ options when the population are still in the hundreds. And the other thing I think we tried, but we failed it’s effective communication with the communities where you’re going to do the we’re going to catch the animal, or you’re going to do the conservation of the biodiversity. Uh, we brought fishermen to work with us and we had people giving chats at schools and bringing students to our facilities. But I still think we could have done probably a better job, but as one fisherman said, it’s a toxic environment in the upper gulf because you have all the mafias or these organized crimes from China and Mexico.
So it’s not easy to have a decent, uh, conservation meeting with many of the fishers that are even from the outside and they work for organized crime. So having a civilized dialogue is not an easy, and when were started by vaquita, someone said, let them go, let them go extinct with dignity, which I hated that argument because
Lauren: This does not sound dignified. What is happening?
Lorenzo: it does, it has it’s
is a human thing and it, I mean, some people have cancer and for them that dignified death is just to let the cancer do its work and you go away peacefully or not peacefully. You and for others that dignified that this fight till the last minute and try to defeat the damn disease. So it’s a very subjective, so there’s nothing dignified in extinction, I guess.
Lauren: no, I agree.
Well, Lorenzo. I want to thank you so much for your time. I want to thank you so much for the work that you have been doing for decades. I want to thank you for your commitment to helping this amazing little cetacean . so thank you so much for time. I really appreciate you joining us today.
Lorenzo: thank you for your interest. I really appreciate it.
Lauren: I really want to thank you for joining us for this episode today. Special. Thank you to Marcus Wernicke, for helping me edit these episodes. if you have any questions, you can email me [email protected]. And as always, I hope you have a great day and go fluke and learn something. Take care, everyone.