Rare, mysterious vaquita on verge of extinction

Vaquita image is courtesy of ©Tom Jefferson/NOAA

Conservation groups are imploring Mexico to take stronger, immediate action to save the vaquita, a small porpoise that inhabits the northern Gulf of California and could become extinct in as little as four years.

The world’s smallest known cetaceans, which can measure to about 5 feet, are also the rarest and most endangered.

Their number has diminished to perhaps fewer than 100, thanks largely to gillnetters operating illegally within a vast reserve designed to protect the mysterious mammals.

vaquita habitat
Map showing vaquita habitat is courtesy of IUCN

Many of the gillnetters, with their indiscriminate gear, are fishing for shrimp, which is sold to U.S. consumers. (The porpoises become trapped in the invisible netting and drown.)

But a more recent substantial threat is the illegal trade—involving drug cartels and Chinese wildlife traffickers—of an endangered fish species called totoaba, whose swim bladders are in high demand in China. (A pair of bladders can fetch as much as $8,500.)

Totoaba, which are similar in appearance to white seabass, inhabit the same gulf waters as the vaquita.

Vaquitas are known for their cute, rounded faces and mascara-like circles around their eyes. Photo via Barbara Taylor/NOAA

Because of this dual threat, the vaquita population is declining by about 18 percent per year; the mammals could become extinct as early as 2018.

“Time is running out,” Rebecca Lent, executive director of the Marine Mammal Commission, told the Los Angeles Times. “The government of Mexico has made an effort, but it has been ineffective. What we need is a firm commitment by Mexico to stop the gillnetting. Now.”

A coalition of 28 conservation groups recently wrote to Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, urging him to enact stronger protections.

One option the coalition is pursuing is filing a lawsuit to enforce a foreign bycatch provision of the Marine Mammal Protection Act. This could result in a ban of the importation of shrimp into U.S. ports, unless the shrimp can be certified as vaquita-friendly.

Mexico has already spent about $30 million in an effort to protect the mammals, according to the San Diego Union-Tribune.

This has gone toward the establishment of a reserve, and a program designed to phase out gillnets in favor of light-trawl gear that is said to be vaquita-friendly. (Gillnets are used legally outside reserve boundaries but still in vaquita habitat, and illegally inside the vaquita reserve.)

This is a three-year phase-out, however. The Vaquita does not have the luxury of time, and Mexican fishermen are reluctant to make the switch to the less-effective gear.

“Don’t forget that there are 30,000 families that are going to have to find a different way of life,” Mario Aguilar, head of Mexico’s National Commission of Aquaculture and Fishing, told the Union-Tribune.

Andrew Read, a professor of marine biology at Duke University and a vaquita expert, told the L.A. Times, “It’s hard for Mexico to find the political will and resources needed to buy out the illegal fisheries.”

Read added that with drug cartels involved in the illegal totoaba trade, enforcement becomes an even more difficult undertaking.

Aerial images captured on December revealed dozens of boats fishing within the vaquita reserve. At least 17 were gill net vessels.

Stated the International Union for Conservation of Nature, in a website report this week:

“This year’s shrimp gillnet fishery has been underway for more than two months and the season of most intensive (entirely illegal) gillnet fishing for totoaba recently began. Enforcement is minimal despite assurances from the government that it would be significantly strengthened by the time shrimp fishing began in September.”

Vaquitas are shy, elusive mammals that were not known to science until 1958. If they were to disappear, it would represent the first known extinction of a cetacean endemic to North America.

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