Vaquita in the Upper Gulf of California

Dr. Adrián Fernández
Presidente, Instituto Nacional de Ecología
Av. Anillo Periférico 5000
Col. Insurgentes Cuicuilco
Delegación Coyoacán
México, DF 04530

April 22, 2010

Dear Dr. Fernández:

The Board of the Society for Marine Mammalogy (SMM) has been following with great interest recovery efforts undertaken by your Government to conserve the highly endangered vaquita (Phocoena sinus) in the Upper Gulf ofCalifornia. As you know, elimination of by-catch is the only approach that will ensure the survival of this endemic species. Since 2007, the Government of Mexico has invested an unprecedented level of funding to eliminate bycatch. The conservation actions taken to date, including buyouts,enforcement of areas closed to fishing, and development of alternative fishing gear, hold great promise to reverse the population decline of this species.

Critical to any conservation program is a monitoring scheme that will allow evaluation of the success of management actions taken over time. We believethat the time has come to implement an effective monitoring program to allow assessment of the efficacy of the critical measures taken to date. Recently the Instituto Nacional de Ecología (INE) convened a workshop to guide the design of such a monitoring scheme. The Report of the Workshopdetails a monitoring plan within the vaquita refuge, including a budget, timeframe and other actions. The Report has been reviewed favorably by several distinguished members of the SMM and by other scientists.

The Board of the SMM considers the scheme outlined in the WorkshopReport to be an effective means of monitoring the vaquita population. Due to the very small size of this population, it is clear that monitoring methods must achieve an unprecedented level of sampling precision. Achieving this level of precision will require a significant investment of funds, but we note that the cost will be small in comparison to the investment already committed to theconservation program and insignificant in relation to the potential ecological and societal costs of losing this iconic species. The Board of the SMM therefore, fully supports the workshop recommendations; we believe that these measures are a feasible means of monitoring this very small population of vaquitas.

Once again, the Board of the SMM offers to your Government its expertise in working towards the conservation of Mexico’s only endemic marine mammal species. Areas in which the Society could potentially assist your Government include:

  • Brokering partnerships with NGOs to assist with the cost of the monitoring
  • Assisting with the development of gear refinements with the aim of reducing bycatch in the areas open to fishing.

The Society looks forward to assisting the Mexican government in its internationally significant endeavors to save the vaquita.


Signature - Andrew J. Read

Andrew J. Read
Society of Marine Mammalogy


Dr. Eduardo Peters R
Director General de Ordenamiento Ecológico y Conservación de los Ecosistemas
Instituto Nacional de Ecología (INE)

Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho
Instituto Nacional de Ecología (INE)

Lic. Jorge López Vergara
Cargo: Oficial Mayor del Ramo

Western Gray Whales

Mr. Alexey B. Miller
Deputy Chairman of the Board of Directors
16 Nametkina St.
117997, Moscow, V-420. GSP-7

Mr. Sergey Bogdanchikov
President of Rosneft
Chairman of Rosneft’s Management Board
26/1, Sofiyskaya Embankment
1, GSP-8 117997
Moscow, Russia

CEO Rex W. Tillerson
ExxonMobil Corporation
5959 Las Colinas Boulevard
Irving, Texas 75039-2298

CEO Peter Mather
British Petroleum
International Headquarters
1 St James’s Square
London, SW1Y 4PD UK

Exxon Neftegas Limited
28 Sakhalinskaya Street
Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Russia 693000

Mr. Mikhailov Y.N.
Acting Director General
CJSC Elvary Neftegaz
78, Chekhova Street
693008 Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk
Russian Federation

April 22, 2010

The Board of Governors of the Society for Marine Mammalogy urges all parties involved in hydrocarbon exploration and production on the Sakhalin shelf to participate in the conservation of western gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus).

Western gray whales have been listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN,; the single remnant population contains approximately 130 individuals. The northeastern shelf of Sakhalin Island, Russia is the critical feeding ground for this population and western gray whales depend on this area for much of their food.

Hydrocarbon exploration and production activities in this area could have severe adverse impacts on this population by disrupting feeding in preferred areas, leading possibly to detrimental effects on individual whales and the gray whale population as a whole. Researchers reported the displacement of whales during a seismic survey in 2001 and behavioral observations made during that period indicated that some whales spent less time feeding and more time traveling when exposed to seismic noise. Deciphering the impact of such changes will require detailed studies of prey distribution, foraging ecology, and continued population monitoring.

In 2004, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and the Sakhalin Energy Investment Company (SEIC) formed an Independent Scientific Review Panel, whose mandate was to evaluate the risks to gray whales from SEIC’s activities on the Sakhalin shelf. An important result of this review was a recommendation to relocate a major pipeline going from offshore platforms to Sakhalin Island. The originally planned route of the pipeline passed through some areas used most intensively by feeding gray whales. SEIC accepted the Panel’s judgment and chose a longer, but safer (from the point of view of the whales) route for the pipeline. The pipeline is now in operation and, although the relocation incurred some additional cost, it provided a tangible benefit to the whales. The success of this process led to the formation of the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel, another partnership between IUCN and SEIC.

Oil and gas exploration and production activities will continue on the Sakhalin shelf for decades. Seismic air gun surveys will continue, as the industry needs to track the resources in the fields to maintain production. The planning of these seismic surveys by SEIC is another example of how the process administered by the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel can minimize the impacts of industrial activity on gray whales. For example, an upcoming SEIC seismic survey has been scheduled to occur when the fewest whales are present on the feeding grounds, and the company has consulted extensively with the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel to develop a detailed, robust monitoring and mitigation program.

The Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel process, in collaboration with SEIC, has clearly had some notable success. However, SEIC is only one of several oil companies operating on the Sakhalin shelf. To fully minimize impacts of hydrocarbon exploration and production on western gray whales, it is essential that all companies operating in the region participate in the process.

Therefore, the Board of Governors of the Society for Marine Mammalogy urges all parties involved in hydrocarbon exploration and production on the Sakhalin shelf and around the Sea of Okhotsk to participate in the WGWAP process and:

  • inform the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel of all exploration and production activities planned and occurring off Sakhalin;
  • work co-operatively with the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel to minimize adverse impacts of these activities on this critically endangered population of whales.
  • adopt and follow the recommendations of the Western Gray Whale Advisory Panel.

Thank you for considering our suggestions about this important conservation matter.


Signature - Andrew J. Read
Andrew J. Read, Ph.D.
President, Society for Marine Mammalogy

New Zealand can act to conserve the New Zealand sea lion

Hon John Key
Prime Minister
PO Box 18888 Parliament Buildings
Wellington, New Zealand

New Zealand can act to conserve the New Zealand sea lion

Dear Prime Minister:

The purpose of this letter is to convey the grave concern held by the Board of the Society for Marine Mammalogy about the future of the New Zealand sea lion, a species whose production of young has declined over 30% in the past decade, and to ask you to initiate urgent actions to prevent its further decline. The New Zealand sea lion may not be at risk of near term extinction, but its population decline is sufficiently serious to warrant a precautionary approach to fisheries management actions and a review of research priorities.

The Society for Marine Mammalogy is the largest professional group in the world dedicated to the study of marine mammals and consists of approximately 2,000 scientists from 60 countries. The Society’s goal is to facilitate the understanding and conservation of marine mammals and their ecosystems. We appreciate the global leadership that New Zealand has played in the conservation of marine ecosystems including the conservation of marine mammals.

New Zealand sea lion was relisted on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species in 2008 as ‘Vulnerable’, because expert opinion suggested that their population was likely to decline by more than 30% over the next three generations as a result of the marked decline in pup production in the last 10 years at the major breeding areas. The IUCN was so concerned about the species that it recommended that the species be reviewed again within a decade. We understand that during the 2008/2009 breeding season, there was a further 31% drop in pup production relative to the previous season at the Auckland Islands, their main breeding area and that the New Zealand sea lion could be relisted under the New Zealand threatened classification listing in 2009 as Nationally Critically Endangered.

The reason for the decline is not clear, but is likely to be attributable to a number of factors. I understand that the most influential of these factors may be the on-going fisheries by-catch of adult females and a series of bacterial disease outbreaks. The species’ range is reduced from historic levels; they are now limited to the sub-Antarctic Islands whereas midden records indicate they used to be widespread.

Although the role of local trawling fisheries in the decline of the New Zealand sea lion population is debated, the continued annual removal of animals through bycatch may well reduce the resilience of a vulnerable and declining population. We understand that The Ministry of Fisheries increased the allowed sea lion by-catch take from 81 last year to 113 this year. On the basis of the continuing population decline of the species, we urge you to adopt a more precautionary approach to setting an allowed level of bycatch for the species. One robust approach would be to use the Potential Biological Removal method to estimate a total level of allowed annual fishery bycatch for the species. The Potential Biological Removal method is the process used in the US to set bycatch levels (PBR; Wade and Angliss 1997). Alternatively, we suggest that a peer-reviewed population viability analysis be used to evaluate any change in allowed bycatch. Ultimately, a comprehensive review of management and research options beyond 2010 would, in our view, provide a useful approach to ensuring a continuation of your best practice to marine conservation issues.

The New Zealand sea lion is the only seal or sea lion that is restricted to New Zealand. It clearly is of high social value; both the Otago Peninsula and New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic Islands, New Zealand sea lions are an increasing focus of the burgeoning tourist industry.

The future of the New Zealand sea lion is clearly reliant on New Zealand’s management decisions and actions. We hope that New Zealand’s handling of the New Zealand sea lion decline will continue to set a global standard for the effective conservation of the world’s marine mammals.

Please contact me if you would like further independent scientific advice from members of the Society who are experts in the conservation of sea lions.

Yours sincerely,

Signature - Andrew J. Read

Andrew J. Read
President of the Society of Marine Mammalogy
Rachel Carson Associate Professor of Marine Conservation Biology
Division of Marine Science and Conservation
Nicholas School of the Environment
Duke University
Phone: + 1 -252-504-7590

Hon Tim Groser Minister of Conservation, Parliament Buildings, P.O. Box 18888 Wellington

Hon Phil Heatley, Minister of Fisheries, Parliament Buildings, P.O. Box 18888 Wellington