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There are now just 30 vaquita left in the wild

  • According to a recent report by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), there are now just 30 vaquita left in the Upper Gulf of California, the body of water that separates Baja California from mainland Mexico and the species’ only known range.
  • About 49 percent of the remaining vaquita population was lost between 2015 and 2016, CIRVA found.
  • The primary cause of death for the vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is becoming entangled in gillnets used to catch totoaba, a giant Mexican fish whose swim bladders are much in demand, especially in China.

The vaquita continues to earn its title as “the world’s most endangered cetacean species.”

According to a recent report by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), there are now just 30 vaquita left in the Upper Gulf of California, the body of water that separates Baja California from mainland Mexico and the species’ only known range.

About 49 percent of the remaining vaquita population was lost between 2015 and 2016, CIRVA found. That makes the average annual rate of decline between 2011 and 2016 an estimated 39 percent — meaning that the population declined by some 90 percent over that five-year period.

The primary cause of death for the vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is becoming entangled in gillnets used to catch totoaba, a giant Mexican fish whose swim bladders are much in demand, especially in China. Vaquita, also known as vaquita marina, are a small porpoise, and when they become trapped in the nets they drown because they can’t return to the surface to breathe.

An emergency ban on the use of gillnets in the vaquita’s range was adopted by the Mexican government in 2015, and is set to expire this April. CIRVA is calling for the ban to be made permanent.

“[T]he already desperate situation has worsened, despite existing conservation measures and current enforcement efforts,” the authors of the CIRVA report write. “Unless this decline can be stopped by eliminating mortality in illegal gillnets, the vaquita will be extinct in a few years.”

CIRVA found that high levels of illegal gillnet fishing have continued despite the ban. Given the confirmed deaths of three vaquitas in gillnets in 2016 and the nearly 50 percent decline in the species’ abundance over the past year, there is ample evidence that enforcement efforts have fallen short, the scientific committee said. “There is a critical need for more effective enforcement of existing fisheries regulations. This includes immediate response to reports of illegal fishing activity in the Upper Gulf, arrests, and prosecutions,” the report states.

The Mexican and US governments have committed to a number of collaborative measures to conserve what’s left of the vaquita population, including a crackdown on the illegal totoaba trade, the development of fishing gear as an alternative to gillnets that won’t result in deaths of vaquitas, and the removal of any illegal or derelict fishing gear from the vaquita’s habitat in the Gulf of California.

But a team of Mexican and American researchers determined last year that, while the gillnet ban now in place and the proposal to switch to new fishing gear have the potential to alleviate the immediate bycatch problem that is threatening the vaquita with extinction, the current conservation plan will likely fall short because it “neglects local livelihoods, the traditions and heritage of the community, the ecological integrity of the area and increases dependence on fishing subsidies.”

The long-term protection of the vaquita requires the support of local communities, the researchers argue — yet local fishers are often excluded from the process of designing management plans in the Upper Gulf of California.

The reaction to another measure proposed recently by the Mexican government was just as pessimistic. In response to an announcement last month by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) of an emergency plan to save the vaquita by capturing some individuals and moving them to a temporary sanctuary, environmental NGO Greenpeace warned that there is no guarantee of the measure’s effectiveness.

Similar to most cetaceans, porpoises do not do well in captivity, the group noted. And given that the vaquita population has already been under severe pressure for years now, any further loss will only create additional stress for the remaining animals.

In the official statement issued by SEMARNAT about the captive breeding program it intends to implement, Sam Ridgway, president of the San Diego, California-based National Marine Mammal Foundation, acknowledges that the odds are against the species reproducing in captivity and then being reintroduced into its habitat.

“Experts from around the world have come together and are working to save the vaquita just as conservationists rescued the California condor from extinction in the 1980s,” Ridgway said. “We recognize that the odds are against us, but conservation and scientific communities feel that it is their duty to act, so we hope our collective experience can make a difference.”

Gustavo Ampugnani, executive director of Greenpeace Mexico, responded that this “drastic measure” will do very little if the underlying problem of totoaba fishing and the use of gillnets is not solved. “We know what must happen to save the vaquita in their natural habitat: cease the fishing of totoaba, not only with surveillance, but also with the application of socio-economic policies to support the region, involve communities in the protection of the vaquita, and develop fishing gear that does not endanger other species,” Ampugnani said.

The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is a critically endangered porpoise species endemic to the northern part of the Gulf of California. It is considered the smallest and most endangered cetacean in the world. Photo by Paula Olson, NOAA.