Vaquita population may be down to 50

Illegal fishing drives species toward extinction

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A vaquita in the Gulf of California. Photo courtesy NOAA/Paula Olsen.
vaquita habitat map
Vaquitas live only in the northern end of the Gulf of California, where they are threatened by illegal fishing.

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Illegal gillnet fishing in the northern Gulf of California continued to take a toll on endangered vaquita porpoises the past few years, according to a new report suggesting that as few as of 50 vaquitas remain.

The report, from the Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), is based on acoustic detection surveys, which is the best way to count the small porpoises. Based on the most recent survey, the scientists concluded an apparent 42 percent drop in the vaquita population from 2013 to 2014, when scientists estimated the population at less than 100.

Another detection survey is planned for later this year, but conservation advocates say immediate and drastic action is needed to save the species.

Most of all, Mexico needs to strictly enforce a ban on gillnet fishing in the region, said said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity.

“Without drastic help, vaquitas could vanish completely in just a few years. We need the world to wake up and help save these incredible porpoises,” Uhlemann said.

The small marine mammals live only in a 4,000-square-kilometer zone at the very northern end of the Gulf of California. Not much is known about historical population numbers. Vaquitas were identified as a separate species of porpoise in the 1950s and the best evidence suggests their numbers have been declining steadily since then.

At first the drop was probably related to shrimp gillnet fishing, Uhlemann said. But in recent years, the decline is clearly lined with illegal fishing for totoaba, a type of sea bass that is also endangered. Totoabas and vaquitas are about the same size. As a result the vaquita are easily entangled in the nets set illegally for totoaba.

Several times, Mexico has declared a ban on gillnet fishing in the area, but has failed to adequately enforce the restrictions. And fishermen are willing to risk violating the ban because swim bladders from the totoabas are highly priced on the illegal Asian black market, where they are used to make soup and for unproven treatments in traditional medicine.

The most recent ban on gillnet fishing in the area was issued in April, but some evidence suggests that the illegal activity continues.

Driven by increasing wealth in Asia, the demand for totoaba bladders has spiked recently. A single totoaba bladder can sell for $14,000. A recent Greenpeace investigation tracked the illegal trade from Mexico to Hong Kong.

“If we could fix the gillnet fishing problem, we could save the species,” Uhleman said, explaining that at least one other marine mammal species — the elephant seal — has recovered after being this close to the edge of extinction.

“It’s horrifying to witness, in real time, the extinction of an animal right in front of our eyes,” she said.

“We’re truly at the brink of losing the vaquita forever,” said Zak Smith, staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Marine Mammal Protection Project. “It’s inexcusable that vaquita are paying the price for Mexico’s history of ineffective and half-hearted efforts to ‘protect’ them. Now, only the most extreme measures will help, and that means a zero-tolerance enforcement of the gillnet ban in the Gulf of California.”

In April, Mexico promised to increase enforcement against the growing illegal totoaba fishery. While Mexico’s actions are commendable, the new report says thise actions may be too little, too late, and that a permanent ban on nets in the Gulf and rigorous enforcement of that ban are necessary to save the vaquita. Unless Mexico’s newest conservation measures are aggressively enforced, the vaquita will not survive.

Conservation groups have requested that the Obama administration impose trade sanctions against Mexico to stop the country’s illegal totoaba fishery. That could include a boycott of shrimp from Mexico. Groups have also sought “in danger” status for the Gulf of California World Heritage site that was designated, largely to protect the vaquita and the totoaba.

A new population survey for vaquita by U.S. and Mexican scientists is scheduled to start in September, around the time that fishing activity, and hence vaquita mortality, is at its highest.

Specifically, the CIRVA report says Mexico must step up nighttime surveillance and enforcement, when most of the illegal fishing happens. The report says possession and transport of gillnets should be illegal in the area.

And since fishing is an important part of the local economy for the small coastal towns in the area, the report recommends expediting permits for non-gillnet fishing, as well as developing and encouraging alternatives for fishermen in the area.

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