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Leonardo DiCaprio teams up with Mexico’s president and wealthiest individual to save the vaquita

  • A report by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita released in February found that there are as few as 30 vaquita left in the Upper Gulf of California, the small marine cetacean species’ only known range.
  • Despite the ban adopted by Mexico two years ago, unlawful use of gillnets remains widespread in the Upper Gulf of California, where they’re used to catch totoaba, a fish whose swim bladder is much prized by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine.
  • Both the Carlos Slim Foundation and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation will reportedly be backing the agreement by committing funds to local development projects and alternative fishing gear options.
  • In order to further crack down on illegal fishing activities, the agreement also includes a prohibition on night fishing and measures to tighten entry and exit controls in the vaquita reserve, according to the AP.

Actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio has jumped into the fight to save the critically endangered vaquita together with the president of Mexico and the country’s wealthiest individual.

An agreement signed Wednesday by DiCaprio, President Enrique Peña Nieto, and billionaire Carlos Slim makes a temporary ban on gillnets adopted by Mexico in 2015 permanent, with the goal of ending use of the fishing gear that has decimated vaquita numbers altogether.

A report by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita released in February found that there are as few as 30 vaquita left in the Upper Gulf of California, the small marine cetacean species’ only known range.

Despite the ban adopted by Mexico two years ago, unlawful use of gillnets remains widespread in the Upper Gulf of California, where they’re used to catch totoaba, a fish whose swim bladder is much prized by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine. Though no health benefits have yet been proven by science, it is believed that swim bladders from fish in the family Sciaenidate, which includes totoaba, can be used to cure a number of ailments.

Vaquita become ensnared in the gillnets and drown, the chief cause of their precipitous population decline. According to the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita report, vaquita numbers dropped by 90 percent between 2011 and 2016.

“Mexico understands its responsibility as one of the countries with greatest biodiversity,” Peña Nieto said, as reported by the AP. “That is why we have implemented an historic effort to avoid the extinction of a unique species in the world and also to protect important ecosystems.”

In January, Mexico’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT) announced an emergency plan to save the vaquita from extinction by capturing the remaining individuals in the Upper Gulf of California and moving them to a protected marine sanctuary.

A fisherman hauls up a critically endangered vaquita porpoise accidentally entangled in his net in 2008. Entanglement in fishing gear threatens the species with extinction. Photo credit: Omar Vidal.

Both the Carlos Slim Foundation and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation will reportedly be backing the agreement by committing funds to local development projects and alternative fishing gear options. The foundations believe that the permanent gillnet ban, coupled with tougher law enforcement, could help protect not just the vaquita but threatened ecosystems across the region.

Researchers have said that, while the gillnet ban and the implementation of alternative fishing gear could take some pressure off of the vaquita in the short-term, creating alternative economic opportunities for locals is key to ensuring the long-term survival of the vaquita, the world’s smallest porpoise.

In order to further crack down on illegal fishing activities, the agreement also includes a prohibition on night fishing and measures to tighten entry and exit controls in the vaquita reserve, according to the AP.

“This action is a critical step towards ensuring that the Gulf of California continues to be both vibrant and productive, especially for species like the critically endangered vaquita,” DiCaprio said of the agreement.