Mexican Fishermen Team Up With Scientists to Save the Vaquita

WildAid and Monitoreo Vaquita protect the Mexican vaquita from extinction by removing gill nets that entangle the vaquita and tracking their population.

The world’s smallest porpoise is on the brink of extinction. The vaquita marina (little sea cow) is only found in the Northern Sea of Cortez and less than 30 individuals remain (a dramatic decrease from last year). While fishermen do not target the vaquita directly, its numbers are decreasing due to entanglements in gillnets.

Between 1990-2010, gillnets used to catch Mexican shrimp resulted in the loss of over 70% of the vaquita population. At that point, fishermen increased the use of gillnets within the vaquita habitat to fulfill the latest fad: the resurging hunt for the endangered totoaba fish and its prized swim bladder.

In China, a single totoaba swim bladder can sell for as much as $31,000-50,000 on the black market. As a result, many local fishermen are willing to risk capture by authorities in an attempt to cash in before the totoaba itself is gone. In 2015, the Mexican government enacted a two-year ban on the use of gillnets in the vaquita habitat and permanently banned them this year. However, due to lax enforcement and legal loopholes, the vaquitas’ numbers continued to plummet.

WildAid is helping to protect the vaquita by reducing demand for totoaba and improving enforcement in Mexico through a partnership with Monitoreo Vaquita, a group of local fishermen, to remove gill nets that entangle the vaquita and track their population.

Since 2010, Monitoreo Vaquita have placed 84 hydrophones in the water and worked with international scientists to determine accurate population counts for the vaquita. This data is used to make scientifically-based policy and management decisions.

In addition to their scientific research, Monitoreo Vaquita has removed 115 gill nets from vaquita habitat in the past year. Each net could weigh up to 800 lbs and creates a deadly hazard for any vaquita in the area as it sits in the water column. The situation is fraught with risk and some of the fishers have been threatened by poachers.

Through our partnership, we hope to expand the work of Monitoreo Vaquita with the purchase of additional hydrophones and support for their patrols.

Adapting C3 Tactics for Marine Conservation

WildAid supports Pacoche, Santa Elena and El Morro marine parks in providing reliable communication equipment and systematic training of Rangers in maritime operations.

Communications, command and control (C3) models are used throughout the U.S. armed forces to ensure mission objectives. This assures situational awareness and getting critical information to the right users at the right time. At WildAid, we’ve adapted these principles to the marinescape with the dual goal of protecting precious fisheries and Park Wardens, as exemplified by the following scenario.

A small artisanal boat is moored in a popular local fishing spot in the Santa Elena Wildlife Refuge when two divers emerge with bags full of their catch. Upon inspection, the Santa Elena Rangers find illegally caught sea cucumber mixed with the rest of the catch. Faced with the threat of seizure, the fishers and boat captain become aggressive… Now what?

Most would expect the rangers to radio their control center to report the situation and request backup; However, up until recently, the Rangers did not have a reliable means of communication often relying on personal cell phones with limited reception.

With funding from the Stellar Blue Fund, WildAid supported the marine parks of Pacoche, Santa Elena and El Morro in the procurement of reliable communication equipment and the systematic training of Rangers in maritime operations. As most Rangers are trained in biology rather than enforcement operations, they lack the basic tactical skills and training to avoid the dangers associated with fisheries law enforcement. Compounding issues, many are often ill-equipped to perform their duties.

Since its installation, the communication system combined with specialized Ranger training has been a success in field operations at all three sites. In El Morro, Rangers now report feeling safer during patrols knowing that they can communicate at will with their control center as well as with the Navy. Contraband, fuel and drug trafficking are ubiquitous throughout coastal areas of Ecuador and a simple boarding of an unsuspecting vessel can quickly go wrong. With reliable communications, Rangers are also able to communicate from a distance with suspicious vessels to avoid dangerous encounters with armed fishers or traffickers.

In Pacoche, where patrols are severely limited by fuel costs and its large geographic area, the radios allow rangers more flexibility to conduct targeted patrols and interceptions. Rangers conducting beach patrols communicate with rangers at sea when they spot fishing vessels or other suspicious activity from shore, thus allowing the patrol boat to quickly intercept illegal fishing activities and prevent fuel waste.

Likewise, in Santa Elena, the communication system allows rangers to quickly gather information about the fishers they’ve intercepted by reporting fishing and boat license information to the control center as well as inform their colleagues to prepare for an arrest.

This work is part of a three-year project in Ecuador to reduce illegal fishing in six of its coastal marine protected areas. We are grateful for the support of the Sandler FoundationConservation International, the Walton Family Foundation, the Overbrook Foundation and the Steller Blue Fund in decreasing illegal fishing along Ecuador’s coast since 2014.


Casquita’s Journey: Rescuing an Injured Sea Turtle in Ecuador

A sea turtle named Casquita makes her way to the sea after recovering from injuries for two months at the Machalilla Wildlife Hospital in Ecuador.

This week marked the beginning of a fresh start for Casquita, an Olive Ridley sea turtle in Ecuador. Accompanied by children from the local community, Casquita triumphantly made her way back to the sea after recovering from injuries inflicted by a boat propeller and malnutrition.

Two months ago, Casquita was found severely undernourished on the beach of the Hotel Las Tanuzas with a fractured skull and shell. The hotel staff brought Casquita to the Machalilla Wildlife Hospital for treatment where volunteers immediately treated her injuries and helped nourish her back to health. After several weeks, she was transferred to a larger tank in preparation for her release.

On the day of her release, children chanted Casquita’s name as hospital volunteers brought her out in a stretcher and placed her in the water to finally return home.

Children surround Casquita’s tank before her release (Machalilla Wildlife Hospital)

Casquita is one of the many marine animals treated at the Machalilla Wildlife Hospital. Sea turtles, sea lions, and sea birds are brought to the hospital from the entire coast of Ecuador with injuries varying from boat strikes, lesions and internal damage by fishing hooks to getting trapped in or consuming marine debris/plastics.

The hospital is a grassroots project begun in 2012 as a rescue operation by the Machalilla park rangers to monitor stranded marine animals, particularly sea turtles. Funding, food and medications for the project were limited to donations from the community and t-shirt sales. Any additional supplies were purchased by hospital volunteers out of pocket. Hospital staff brought patients to private labs or public hospitals in town to conduct digital imaging and blood tests, which are crucial for diagnosis and treatment.

This year, WildAid partnered with the hospital to provide them with crucial resources including tanks, medications and equipment, as well as increase the number of animals treated throughout the year. This collaboration is part of WildAid’s comprehensive sea turtle conservation program that protects sea turtle nests, releases hatchlings to the sea, educates the community about the importance of sea turtles, reduces sea turtle bycatch by underwriting at-sea patrols and treats injured sea turtles.

WildAid Protects Endangered Sea Turtles in Ecuador

WildAid partners with Pacoche National Park to help 15,000 sea turtle hatchlings reach the sea.

Last month, hundreds of female sea turtles left the safety of the sea to lay thousands of eggs along Ecuador’s coast. Park rangers in the Pacoche marine protected area (MPA) have begun patrolling miles of beaches to identify, protect and tag nests with educational materials to prevent predation.

Sea turtles play an important role in a healthy marine and coastal ecosystem. They also generate more than $1 million in tourism annually for local communities in Ecuador. Yet sea turtle nesting sites face threats from predators and human hunting, decreasing endangered sea turtles’ chances of survival. They are also at risk from commercial fisheries, which kill as many as 450,000 sea turtles annually that get caught on the lines or swallow baited hooks.

With an estimated 1% survival rate in the wild, sea turtle hatchlings can use all the help they can get to make their way to the ocean. Home to four sea turtle species (Green Turtles, Leatherbacks, Olive-Ridley, and Hawksbill sea turtles), Ecuador’s coastal MPAs are an important site for sea turtle conservation.

In 2015, WildAid worked with Pacoche park rangers to protect 302 Olive-Ridley nests. We achieved a 63% survival rate with 189 nests that hatched. About 15,000 Olive-Ridley hatchlings made their way to the sea. As part of the project, we educated over 1,000 students from 13 local communities on the importance of sea turtle conservation. The combination of environmental education and beach patrols helped deter poachers and inadvertent damage to the nests.

Our sea turtle conservation project in Pacoche is part of a three-year project to reduce illegal fishing and strengthen protection for marine animals in Ecuador. The plan combats illegal fishing, including long-line and trawl fishing, that threatens endangered species such as sharks, sea turtles, and dolphins. We are implementing the plan at six priority MPAs: Machalilla, Santa Clara, Pacoche, Santa Elena, El Morro and Galera. In addition to the successes of the sea turtle monitoring program in Pacoche, WildAid has accomplished the following results over the past year:

  • Developed a practical control and vigilance strategy for each site;
  • Procured basic surveillance equipment and established regular patrols for improved detection and interception;
  • Developed and delivered comprehensive training workshops for Park Rangers;
  • Established a vessel maintenance system; and
  • Collaborated with an artisanal fishing collaborative in Machalilla to increase support for the MPA.

Looking forward, we will focus on the following project activities in Ecuador in 2016:

  • Installing high power surveillance cameras and AIS (radio-based monitoring equipment) base stations at Machalilla and Santa Clara MPAs;
  • Strengthening Park compliance capacity via systematic training and the provision of supplemental funding for regular MPA enforcement operations; and
  • Continuing sea turtle conservation efforts.

WildAid has helped decrease illegal fishing and increase protection for endangered sea turtles on Ecuador’s coast since 2014. We truly appreciate the support of the Sandler Foundation, Conservation International, the Overbrook Foundation and our other donors on this project.