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The vaquita is a seriously endangered species. The vaquita is a seriously endangered species.

UNESCO declares vaquita marina habitat World Heritage in danger

The designation is intended to draw international attention and trigger the development of a conservation strategy

A group of islands and islets and coastal areas in the Gulf of California recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site have been designated World Heritage in danger because of threats to the nearly extinct vaquita marina.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee, at its annual meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan, asked Mexico to take action to prevent the extinction of the vaquita and stop the use of gillnets in its habitat. The committee also asked other countries to crack down on illegal trafficking of totoaba swim bladders.

Being included on the list of World Heritage sites in danger is regarded as an opportunity to call international attention to the issue and for a member state to work with UNESCO on a comprehensive conservation strategy, so that the site can eventually be removed from the list.

Mexico has already taken action to protect the vaquita, including the creation of a protected area for the remaining animals and promoting alternative fishing techniques to gillnets, in which the vaquita become bycatch. But critics charge that Mexico has not done enough to enforce a prohibition against fishing within the vaquita habitat.

The population has been declining rapidly, and today there are only an estimated 10 remaining, compared to almost 300 in 2005.

The decline in the vaquita population is mostly the result of illegal fishing of totoaba, a large fish that is also endemic to the Gulf of California. Totoaba are prized for their swim bladders, which are considered a delicacy in Asia.

The Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California covers 244 islands, islets and coastal areas that have a high level of biodiversity, with 891 species of fish and 695 species of plants. The site is also home to 39% of all the marine mammal species in the world.

In March, the government announced new plans to protect the vaquita, which included promoting vaquita-safe fishing nets and marking vaquita habitats with buoys. But some environmentalists say the measures don’t go far enough, and what’s needed are floating barriers to keep fishing boats out of the vaquita habitat.

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