Vaquita population drops to brink of extinction

vaquita4_olsen
Continued poaching is pushing the vaquita toward extinction. Photo courtesy Paula Olsen/NOAA.

New survey results show as few as 60 remaining vaquita porpoises in the Gulf of California

Staff Report

The population of vaquita porpoises in the Gulf of California may be down to just 60 individuals, according to conservation advocates, who released the results of recent surveys in a press release last week.

The vaquita is the world’s smallest and most endangered porpoise and could be extinct in less than a decade without stringent conservation measures, especially a complete and well-enforced ban on gill nets in the northern Gulf of California. The new vaquita population estimate is based on observer data and acoustic monitoring conducted during a joint Mexico-U.S. vaquita research cruise last fall.

Despite a two-year ban on gill nets enacted last year, Mexico-based fishermen continue to cast their nets to try and catch another endangered species — totoaba, which are illegally exported to Asia to make soup perceived to have medicinal properties. Demand for the bladders spiked around 2011, and a single bladder can reportedly sell for between $2,500 and $10,000.

“It’s heartwrenching to watch the vaquita plummet toward extinction in real time,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “If we’re going to avoid losing this species forever, Mexico must do much more to ensure its survival, and that should start with an immediate, permanent ban on fishing nets that are pushing vaquitas to the absolute brink of extinction.”

According to conservation advocates tracking the fate of the vaquita, poachers took advantage of a loophole in the gill net ban this year to continue illegally fishing for totoaba. As a result, in March, three vaquita were found dead due to entanglement.

“There’s no margin for error if we’re going to save the vaquita,” said Zak Smith, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Marine Mammal Protection Project. “Each and every remaining vaquita is vital to the species’ survival. If the species is going to make it beyond 2020, Mexico needs to take responsibility. Otherwise, the disappearance of vaquitas is on them.”

Scientists have long urged Mexico to adopt a permanent ban on nets in the Gulf of California, ensure rigorous enforcement to save the vaquita, and transition local fishermen to vaquita-safe gear.

To prompt Mexico to action, the Center in 2014 requested that the Obama administration impose trade sanctions against Mexico to stop the country’s illegal totoaba fishery. And last year the Center and the Animal Welfare Institute sought “in danger” status for the Gulf of California World Heritage site that was designated, in part, to protect the vaquita and the totoaba.

The issue may be considered at the upcoming World Heritage meeting in July. NRDC is sponsoring a motion before the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) 2016 World Conservation Congress that would result in the world’s conservation community calling for immediate action to save the vaquita.

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