On May 10 actor and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio shared a cute image of the endangered vaquita porpoise on social media and issued a request to his millions of followers to join him and the World Wildlife Fund in demanding action from Mexico to protect the species.
Yesterday, less than a month later, DiCaprio found himself in President Enrique Peña Nieto’s official residence where he signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to protect the world’s rarest marine mammal along with the president and Mexico’s richest man, telecommunications magnate Carlos Slim.
The species is endemic to the northern part of the Sea of Cortés, also known as the Gulf of California, where it is believed 30 or less remain.
The MOU, backed financially by DiCaprio and Slim’s respective foundations, seeks to avoid extinction of the vaquita by making a temporary ban on the use of gillnets permanent.
Fisherman use gillnets in the area to catch both shrimp and totoaba, the latter a species that is also endangered and endemic to the region and fished illegally because its swim bladder is a delicacy in China and sells for thousands of dollars per kilogram.
Vaquita porpoises – the smallest of six extant porpoise species, can become entrapped in the nets and subsequently die, which has led to a sharp decline in their numbers.
However, because the trading of the totoaba is so lucrative efforts to control its fishing have been unsuccessful.
Consequently, the MOU also aims to better enforce efforts to combat the illegal use of gillnets, increase prosecution of illegal fishing, prohibit nighttime fishing and implement and enforce limited entry and exit point in the vaquita reserve.
The DiCaprio and Slim foundations have also committed to financially assist local fishing communities that will be adversely affected by the tightened controls.
“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. My foundation and I look forward to continuing to work with President Peña Nieto, our NGO partners and the local communities in the gulf to reach greater progress on these important issues,” DiCaprio stated yesterday.
Peña Nieto mirrored the Hollywood star’s words. “Mexico understands its responsibility as one of the countries with the greatest biodiversity. 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.”
Authorities are expected to start catching the dwindling numbers of vaquitas later this year to place them in a marine sanctuary in a further effort to ensure their survival.