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SCB’s 2016 LaRoe awardee Barbara Taylor fights to save the vaquita from extinction

Vaquita conservation efforts featured on 60 Minutes on Sunday, May 22, 2016.

The Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) annually awards the Edward T. LaRoe III Memorial Award to an individual who has been a leader in translating principles of conservation biology into real-world conservation. Preference is given to employees of government agencies or individuals who have spent at least part of their career in public service. Dr. LaRoe was chief scientist for NOAA’s coastal zone management program, a founder and former director of the Coastal Society, and a principal author of the National Wetland Classification system. Past recipients have included leaders in a wide range of disciplines.

This year, the award will be given at the North American Congress of Conservation Biology (NACCB; ) held in Madison, Wisconsin from July 17 to July 20, 2016. The award will be given to Dr. Barbara Taylor of NOAA's Southwest Fisheries Science Center to recognize her outstanding career achievements in translating conservation science into real-world conservation efforts, most recently in the case of vaquita conservation.

The vaquita (Phocoena sinus), or Gulf of California harbor porpoise, is one of the rarest and most endangered marine mammals in the world.  The vaquita, which is Spanish for “little cow”, is especially vulnerable to drowning in gillnet fishing nets. Recent surveys document that only around 60 vaquitas remain. Results of the acoustic monitoring between 2011-2015 showed an 80% decline over that period. Results from the acoustic monitoring prompted the emergency 2-year ban of gillnets that began on May 10, 2015. Although almost no gillnets were seen on the survey between October and early December, 42 illegal totoaba gillnets were recently removed by the Sea Shepherd in collaboration with the Mexican Navy. 3 vaquitas died in March from gillnet entanglement.

At 8 pm on Sunday, May 22, 2016, the program 60 Minutes will air a segment on vaquita. The crew came to San Felipe and interviewed Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho and Barbara Taylor during the 2015 vaquita survey. They also filmed the presentation of the SMM Conservation Merit Prize and interviewed Mexico’s Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources Rafael Pacchiano afterwards in San Francisco. Most importantly, they filmed vaquita themselves. The program will be available after May 22 on

SCB, led by its Marine, Latin America and Caribbean, and Asia sections, has worked for several years to advance vaquita conservation. More information can be found on SCB's vaquita webpage, and via the following policy statements from 2015 and 2012

See also this video, and articles in the LA Times, and CNN.

Biography of awardee

Throughout her career as a NOAA scientist, Dr. Taylor has significantly improved the conservation and management of marine resources, particularly marine mammals. Dr. Taylor has used her creativity, powers of logical reasoning and impressive quantitative skills to develop methods that enable government agencies to make better policy and management decisions through explicit analysis of uncertainty. Making decisions in the face of uncertainty lies at the core of conservation biology but uncertain managers around the world often fail to act, which has deleterious consequences for many species.

She played a key role in developing the system used to manage fisheries that accidentally kill marine mammals in U.S. waters. This system calculates the maximum allowable bycatch (potential biological removal or PBR) of each species and is based on extensive population viability modeling. An important feature of this precautionary system is that PBR decreases as uncertainty about population size and/or bycatch increases. Use of this approach in the U.S. is now specified in the U. S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Bycatch mortality exceeding PBR has led to the formation of “Take Reduction Teams” teams that work to reduce fisheries bycatch mortality of species such as Gulf of Maine harbor porpoise, North Atlantic right whales, California sperm and beaked whales, and Hawaiian false killer whales by gear modifications or time/area fishery closures. The PBR approach has also been used in many other countries, including the European Union and New Zealand and adapted for use in evaluating the sustainability of fisheries bycatch of seabirds and even “bush-meat” hunting in tropical forests.

In addition, Dr. Taylor currently leads a group of conservation geneticists who are defining stocks, distinct population segments, subspecies and other taxonomic designations critical for the conservation and management of marine mammals as required under the U.S. MMPA and Endangered Species Act. This group, for example, has identified many small, previously unknown, genetically distinct stocks of various dolphin species in Hawaii’s near-shore waters; these resident insular stocks are now managed separately from nearby pelagic stocks.

Dr. Taylor has served on many Recovery Teams and Take Reduction Teams for wide range of species managed by NOAA, such as great white sharks, killer whales, and humpback whales. She has also worked tirelessly for the conservation of the world’s most endangered marine mammal, the vaquita, a small porpoise found only in the upper Gulf of California. Her vision, determination, passion and expert scientific leadership have been critical to saving this species from extinction. Her many contributions include helping to develop an innovative acoustic monitoring program that provides a means of assessing changes in vaquita abundance without the traditional labor-intensive boat-based surveys, co-leading two scientific expeditions to determine population abundance, and providing expert guidance on many international teams convened to provide the sound science needed for decision makers. She is one of the few international members of the Mexican President’s advisory commission and has the trust of the Mexican Ministry of the Environment. Dr. Taylor is highly skilled whether she is identifying critical conservation gaps or solving them empirically, or translating science when talking to reporters, government officials or young scientists. She is able to seamlessly link policy, science and public understanding - the three critical components for advancing conservation. Dr. Taylor’s art can be seen at

Dr. Barbara Taylor. Photo credit: NOAA Fisheries.