Only 12 vaquita marina porpoises remain in the Gulf of California, according to the director of the environmental organization Elephant Action League (EAL).
Andrea Crosta told the environmental website Mongabay that during his last trip to Mexico in February, his sources told him that “we are now talking about a dozen vaquitas left in the Sea of Cortés.”
“The scientists are using sonic buoys to count them, through echolocation, and numbers are now really low,” he explained.
If correct, the predicament the marine mammals face is even more dire that previously thought. Most other recent estimates place the vaquita population at around 30.
Crosta stressed that his information came from “multiple sources, not another organization.”
He also said that he and his team spent time on a vessel operated by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and crew members had “heard similar numbers.”
Vaquitas have been in steady decline in recent years mainly due to getting trapped in gillnets used in illegal totoaba fishing.
That species’ swim bladder is considered a delicacy in China and can reportedly fetch higher prices than cocaine.
According to a study by the non-governmental organization Environmental Investigation Agency, eight criminal groups with links to drug cartels and human trafficking organizations control the illegal fishing and trafficking of totoaba.
Measures to curb totoaba fishing such as imposing a permanent ban on gillnets have been implemented but Crosta said that there is little support for the ban among local fishermen who continue to engage in the illegal practice.
“I think they are actually waiting for the vaquita to go extinct so they can fish more and with fewer restrictions,” he said.
In any case, Crosta also said that the gillnet ban has done little to deter fishermen, stating “I personally saw dozens of illegal fishing vessels going out to sea in the middle of the day, even in areas patrolled by the Mexican navy.”
“During the night, it is even worse,” he added.
Questioned about an abandoned vaquita capture program, Crosta said that he didn’t know if there were any plans to resume the plan, perhaps using a different methodology.
Two vaquitas were caught but neither was ultimately able to be successfully nurtured in captivity and a female of reproductive age died.
However, even if renewed efforts are made to capture more vaquitas, Crosta argued that it is likely too late to save the embattled mammal.
“I personally don’t think that a viable number of vaquitas will survive the next high season of illegal totoaba fishing,” the activist said.
“I don’t want to sound too pessimistic, but this whole thing has become personal. Even if they kill all the vaquitas, we owe it to them to tell their full story, the truth, and we want to take down those responsible, who are not the fishermen, by the way,” he concluded.
Source: Mongabay (en)