Last week, members of Engineers for Exploration got to visit San Felipe, Baja California, Mexico, with the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. San Felipe is a small fishing town on the west side of the Gulf of California that is a primary site of interest for conservation of the vaquita, a small porpoise that is the most endangered marine mammal. Since fishing is the main industry of the region and fishing bycatch claims the lives of an estimated 40 vaquita a year, the effort to recover the vaquita depends on working closely with local fishers in order to educate them about the vaquita’s importance in the ecosystem and provide the funding and training necessary to switch to vaquita-safe fishing gear. Progress has already been made to develop vaquita-safe trawl gear to replace the gillnets that kill vaquita, but conservationists must ensure that the local communities are willing to switch to the new gear, and that the new gear will still catch enough fish to sustain the livelihoods of the fishers.
Members of the Conservation Education Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research are in the process of working with local schools in San Felipe and other fishing towns to develop a curriculum to educate schoolchildren about the importance of conservation, with a focus on local endangered species such as vaquita, condors, and bighorn sheep. Our engineers were invited to accompany them on one of their scheduled site visits to test out some of the technology we hope to apply to assist the vaquita conservation effort.
Our visit to San Felipe was very informative and will certainly make future fieldwork go more smoothly. We were able to take some underwater images at a beach south of San Felipe in order to get an idea of the water visibility, which will be invaluable information when designing our underwater imaging system for taking pictures of vaquita. We also investigated the options for boat rentals, since we need to find a boat big enough to accommodate our balloon survey platform, and found a place to get helium for the balloon in San Felipe to avoid having to transport it across the international border. We also accompanied the members of the San Diego Zoo on all of their school visits, which proved to be an immensely educational experience about how the local communities must be engaged in the conservation effort if the vaquita are to be saved. They are trying to enlist the help of teachers at several local elementary, middle, and high schools for the development of a curriculum that will educate children about the importance of protecting their environment and their indigenous species. Local engagement of all community members is clearly crucial to the vaquita conservation effort, and hopefully Engineers for Exploration will be able to use our technologies to provide enough compelling media to assist the zoo in the conservation effort, and spur the communities to act to save this rare species.
Below are some photos from our visit to San Felipe. These and more can also be viewed on our Flickr page.