GGGI PROJECT: Vaquita Habitat Gear Removal - Gulf of California
At just 1.5 meters long, the vaquita is the world’s smallest porpoise. It is also the world’s most critically endangered marine animal, with fewer than 30 of them remaining.
In an effort to save these critically endangered porpoises, World Animal Protection joined forces with the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), GGGI participant Monterey Bay Diving, and a group of local fishers in May 2017 and again in September 2017 to locate and remove illegal gillnets from the critical vaquita porpoise habitat near San Felipe, Mexico in the Gulf of California.
The vaquita’s proximity to extinction is due primarily to illegal fishing activity and the resulting abandoned gillnets. These nylon gillnets are intended to catch a fish called the totoaba, another critically endangered species sold illegally in China where their swim bladder is prized for use in traditional medicine. As the vaquita and totoaba are roughly the same size, they consistently entangle and drown the vaquita.
As the illegal totoaba fishery ends for the season once the fish stock has migrated, the abandoned illegal nets left in the shared habitat pose an active risk to vaquitas, frequently entangling the animals.
Using GPS coordinates, a flotilla of about 10 local fishing vessels called pangas spread out about 50 meters apart and dragged small grappling hooks behind them designed to snag the lost / illegal nets and mark them for retrieval by a larger research vessel equipped with a derrick.
Another panga then followed the flotilla, using unique side scan sonar scanning technology which allowed the team to locate and identify any illegal and discarded fishing nets that were missed by the grapples on the fishing vessels. This project was the first to use this sonar technology to locate the extremely fine meshed gillnets in far greater numbers than would otherwise be possible, and allowed for a high degree of confidence that there were no nets left in the project area.
Over the course of the project, the team ultimately removed approximately 5,702 square meters of net.