vaquita An illustration of the vaquita

Further measures needed to save a rare species of porpoise from extinction

With less than 100 remaining, the rare species of porpoise called the vaquita is in imminent danger of extinction, says an organization that was formed to ensure its preservation.

Native to Mexico and found only in the Gulf of California, the vaquita is often the bycatch in gillnets designed to catch the totoaba, for which a new market for their swim bladders has surfaced in China. It has been estimated that more than 30 vaquitas are caught in totoaba nets each year.

With only 97 remaining, the odds aren’t good on the vaquitas’ survival.

The International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (Cirva), which was formed by the Mexican government in 1996 to develop a recovery plan for the species, has called for a total ban on gillnet fishing in the area it inhabits.

Cirva also wants monitoring programs on sea and on land to ensure the ban is implemented, and that enforcement of the ban on fishing for totoaba, another endangered species, is also enforced.

The Cetacean Specialist Group (CSG), part of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and which has representation on Cirva, described the latest report on the vaquita population as “alarming” due to an 18.5% annual decline and the latest estimate that only 97 remain.

The CSG reports that illegal fishing has continued in vaquita territory and that a transition from gillnets to a “vaquita-safe” trawl in the shrimp fishery has proceeded slowly. But it cites the illegal totoaba fishery as the main reason for the decline in vaquita numbers.

The CSG says other nations that consume fish products from the northern Gulf of California should step in and help Mexico shut down the black market trade in totoaba swim bladders. “Only by bold, swift actions can we expect to avert another extinction of a cetacean species following that of China’s freshwater dolphin, the baiji, less than a decade ago.”

The organization says the Mexican government has made “an enormous economic and political investment in supporting vaquita conservation,” and estimates that US $26 million has been spent to reduce fishing in a region where it is the main economic activity.

Buy-outs, providing socio-economic alternatives, testing alternative fishing gear and other initiatives have all gone into the effort to save the vaquita. But CSG says 600 small fishboats continue to use gillnets in the area inhabited by the porpoise.

Source: La Jornada (sp)

CORRECTION: This article has been updated with an illustration of the vaquita. The previous graphic depicted a manatee. Our natural history editor has been reprimanded.

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