- In 1997, about 570 vaquita porpoises (Phocoena sinus) were estimated to occur in the world.
- Now, only about 60 vaquitas remain, in a small 1,500 square-mile area in northern Gulf of California, according to a recent report.
- Conservationists say that last year’s emergency two-year ban on gillnet fishing throughout the vaquita range, implemented by the Mexican government, must become permanent for vaquita population to recover.
The world’s most endangered cetacean is quickly inching towards extinction.
In 1997, about 570 vaquita porpoises (Phocoena sinus) were estimated to occur in the world. Now, only about 60 vaquitas remain, in a small 1,500 square-mile area in northern Gulf of California, according to a report presented last week by a group of scientists to Mexico’s Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources and the governor of Baja California.
“We are watching this precious native species disappear before our eyes,” Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, chair of CIRVA (the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, CIRVA) and co-chief scientist of the latest vaquita survey, said in a statement.
The rapid decline of the world’s smallest cetacean (group of marine animals that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises) is being driven by China’s demand for swim bladders of the giant, rare Mexican fish called the totoabas (Totoaba macdonaldi). Despite the Mexican government banning fishing for totoaba in 1975, illegal fishing continues.
The swim bladders — believed to have unproven medicinal benefits — are usually smuggled from Mexico into the U.S., and then to Hong Kong and mainland China, where they sell for thousands of dollars per kilo. Vaquitas get accidentally entangled in illegal nets meant to catch totoabas, and drown.
In March this year, for example, three dead vaquitas were discovered in northern Gulf of California. Necropsy results showed that the vaquitas had died due to entanglement in nets, “presumably set illegally to catch totoaba”.
To protect vaquitas, the Mexican government implemented an emergency two-year ban on gillnet fishing throughout vaquita range last year, and initiated a $70 million plan to compensate fishermen. The Mexican Navy was put in charge of enforcement.
While conservationists have praised the government’s efforts, they say that the ban must become permanent if vaquita populations are to recover.
“Our latest survey confirms the catastrophic decline before the emergency gillnet ban,” Rojas-Bracho said. “This gillnet ban and strong enforcement must continue if we are to have any hope of saving the vaquita.”
Barbara Taylor, co-chief scientist of the survey and a member of the recovery team, added in the statement “…if gillnetting is allowed to resume in the northern Gulf, the vaquita may be extinct by 2022.”
But “if Mexico managed to solve this problem of vaquita mortality in gillnets, it would set an example for other nations, showing that fishermen can fish sustainably and co-exist with porpoises, dolphins, and other sea mammals,” she said.