Texas Sea Grant Fisheries Specialist serving on international committee to improve vaquita-safe fishing

Aug 9, 2016

A Marine Fisheries Specialist at Texas A&M University’s Texas Sea Grant College Program has been named to an international committee to improve fishing techniques to protect the most endangered marine mammal in the world.

Gary Graham, who has more than 45 years of experience working with commercial fisheries, especially the Gulf of Mexico and Southeastern U.S. shrimp fishery, and other experts from around the world have been charged with improving existing fishing technology to protect the critically endangered vaquita, the world’s smallest porpoise, which lives only in a small area of the Upper Gulf of California.

Some experts believe there may be as few as 60 vaquita porpoises left in the world. In the past few years in particular, illegal gillnet fishing for the endangered totoaba, a large fish whose swim bladders fetch a high price in China, has pushed the vaquita to the brink. But even before the illegal totoaba trade, legal commercial fishing in the small portion of the gulf the vaquita call home had threatened the species’ survival, as the porpoises frequently were entangled in the nets and drowned.

Mexico implemented an emergency two-year ban on gillnet fishing in 2015 in the vaquita’s range. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, at a meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama late last month, announced that the ban will become permanent effective September 1, 2016. The two nations pledged to work with international experts to develop alternative fishing gear and to establish vaquita-safe fisheries.

The experts committee, which was established by Mexico’s National Institute of Fisheries (INAPESCA) and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) Mexico, will advise the Mexican government on improved fishing techniques. The group is expected to have recommendations for guidelines and protocols for vaquita-safe shrimp fishing later this month.

Graham said the future of the vaquita “hangs on a thread.”

“It is going to be a tremendous challenge to stop their further decline and potential extinction,” he said. “It is an honor to work with such a diverse group of international scientists as well as artisanal fishermen in finding practical solutions to address this important issue.”

Graham has worked extensively with the Gulf of Mexico and Southeastern U.S. shrimp fishery to aid their adoption of federally mandated devices designed to reduce bycatch, the capture of non-target species. He teaches captains and crews proper installation, use and maintenance of these devices, including turtle excluder devices (TEDs), which when used correctly are 97 percent effective in excluding sea turtles from the nets. The use of these devices has been credited as a contributor to the rebound of the Kemp’s ridley sea turtle, the most endangered species of sea turtle in the world.