SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction combines the collective expertise of Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities to save vulnerable wildlife species from extinction.
The vaquita is the world’s most endangered marine mammal, threatened by entanglement in gill nets which are used to capture Totoaba for sale of its bladder in the illegal wildlife trade. It is estimated there are only 10-to-15 vaquitas remaining. However, a survey conducted in late fall 2019 revealed three pairs of mothers and calves, and two other adult vaquitas, indicating that the species persists and is breeding.
The International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), of which SAFE is a part, is a team of scientists established by the government of Mexico. In 2019, combined efforts that support vaquita conservation removed and destroyed over 1,720 gill nets from the Vaquita Refuge in the Upper Gulf of California and almost 1,400 pieces of illegal fishing gear. The removal of which also benefits incidental catch species including sea turtles.
The solution to vaquita recovery is more complex than removing gill nets and illegal fishing gear. To be successful, all stakeholders must work in concert to ensure coexistence between people, wildlife, and ecosystems, and only then will the species of the Upper Gulf, and the vaquita, thrive.
In 2019, the SAFE vaquita team led the efforts of nearly a dozen zoos and aquariums across the country to celebrate International Save The Vaquita Day. This included organizing the Save the Vaquita postcard campaign, in which five AZA member facilities (The Living Desert in Palm Desert, Calif.; Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif.; The Wilds in Powell, Ohio; El Paso Zoo in El Paso, Texas; and Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi, Texas) and program partners engaged their visitors to sign and send postcards to the embassy in El Paso. Almost 20,000 signed postcards were delivered with messages to the President of Mexico encouraging him to continue to conserve the vaquita.
In January 2020, SAFE vaquita was awarded funding from AZA’s SAFE Granting Program to conduct a series of workshops to promote information exchange with the fishermen and law enforcement in San Felipe, Mexico, in hopes that open dialogue will further the creation of sustainable fisheries in the Upper Gulf.
Great strides are being made to support the survival of the world’s smallest cetacean. SAFE vaquita encourages members of the AZA community to take action to prevent the demise of this species. Please contact the SAFE program at vaquitaSAFE@livingdesert.org or SAFE@aza.org to learn how you can become a SAFE vaquita program partner.
Gillian Cannataro is the conservation and science intern at AZA.
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