Satellite Monitoring Could Help Protect Rare Vaquita Marina Dolphin In Mexico's Sea Of Cortez

By Kendal Blust
Published: Wednesday, September 26, 2018 - 5:14pm
Updated: Friday, September 28, 2018 - 10:19am

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A satellite tracking device
Ryan Jenkinson/Pelagic Data Systems
A tracking device like those used in the Sea of Cortez.

The Mexican government is using a satellite monitoring system that tracks small fishing boats to help protect an endangered dolphin in the Sea of Cortez.

The Upper Gulf of California is home to the vaquita marina, or “little sea cow.” It’s the world’s smallest porpoise, and with as few as 15 left if the Sea of Cortez, it’s also the rarest marine mammal.

The Mexican government has implemented strict fishing regulations in the Sea of Cortez to protect the small dolphin. Now it’s started using a satellite monitoring system to help enforce those rules, says Melissa Garren.

She’s COO and chief scientist for San Francisco-based Pelagic Data Systems that partnered with Mexico to collect the satellite data.

“What we can do is put eyes on the water, essentially, by having the vessel tracking devices monitoring the movement and behavior of boats at all times,” she said. “And with those eyes on the water you have the ability to make sure that people are following those really rigorous rules.”

Melissa Garren
Melissa Garren, COO and chief scientist with Pelagic Data Systems, talks about the satellite monitoring system at a forum in Mexico City in September.

Since the project started last year, trackers have been installed on nearly every fishing boat in the Upper Gulf — almost 1,000 of them. The devices are solar powered and provide hi-resolution images of the boat’s location about 600 times per hour to gather data on when, where and how much fishing is taking place, she says.

The satellite images help authorities monitor fishing activity in real time. The data also helps local fishermen protect their livelihoods by proving their operations are legal and don’t pose a threat to the vaquita, Garren says.

“So for the legal fishermen to be able to continue accessing a resource that they’re harvesting responsibly and sustainably and is not impacting the vaquita,” she said. “To have data that really demonstrates that so that they can continue to support their communities and their livelihoods while continuing to protect the vaquita is really the goal there.”

“Of course, everything is focused, here in the Upper Gulf of California, on the protection of the vaquita marina,” says Marco Alberto Castañeda, the director of inspection and surveillance for the Mexican Commission on Fish and Agriculture.

He says the satellites are helping authorities keep track of boats so they can't put the vaquita at risk with illegal fishing.

But no one knows if these efforts will be enough to save the small dolphin from extinction.

Satellite tracking device
Rian Devos/Pelagic Data Systems
A tracking device like those used on fishing boats in the Sea of Cortez.

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