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The Vaquita Are Vanishing On Our Watch

US introduces emergency proposal to save the world’s most endangered cetacean

The vaquita, the smallest member of the porpoise family, is facing imminent extinction due to the inability of the international community to address critical threats to its survival. There are fewer than 60 of these critically endangered cetaceans left today.

a photo illustration of two vaquita in the oceanPhoto illustration courtesy of Save the Vaquitas There are fewer than 60 of these critically endangered cetaceans left today.

Also known as La Cochina (the Little Cow of the Sea) to people living in the Gulf of California in Mexico, the vaquita (Phocoena sinus) has the most limited geographical range of any marine cetacean species and is endemic to a mere 30-mile radius in the upper Gulf. According to the International Whaling Commission (IWC), its population has declined by more than 92 percent since 1997.  

"The situation of the vaquita is now in its critical phase," Justin Cooke of the International Union for Conservation of Nature told delegates to the IWC's annual meeting in Portoroz, Slovenia, on Tuesday, according to an Agence France Press report. “If the decline is not stopped then by the time we next discuss it... in two years' time, it will be already too late to save the species," he said while making a plea to stop illegal gillnet fishing that’s been killing vaquitas.

The commission discussed an emergency proposal by the United States to save the world's most threatened cetacean that asks for more effective monitoring of the ban on gillnet fishing. The proposal, which was backed by the European Union and several other countries including Mexico, calls on IWC members to offer Mexico expert support to enforce the ban as well as financial aid to help compensate the fishermen affected and replace old fishing nets with safer alternatives.

The matter was held over for negotiators to seek a consensus position that can be adopted. If negotiators fail to build a consensus, the proposal will be put to a vote by commission members.

Scientists have warned for decades that the vaquita is facing extinction due to its unique geographical restriction, mortality via accidental entrapment in the gillnets, and genetic vulnerability due to the population’s dwindling size.

 Vaquita Population Decline graph According to the International Whaling Commission (IWC), the vaquita's population has declined by more than 92 percent since 1997.

A 2014 report by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita said that no more than 25 of the remaining vaquitas are likely to be reproductively mature females, and that the vaquita could be extinct by 2018 if fishery bycatch is not eliminated immediately.

And in a report published earlier this year, the IWC’s Scientific Committee unequivocally stated: “The choice is simple and stark: either gillnetting in the Upper Gulf ends or the vaquita will be gone — the second entirely preventable cetacean extinction that the Committee will have witnessed in the last ten years.”

The other cetacean referred to above is the baiji dolphin, a freshwater river dolphin endemic to the Yangtze River in China, which is presumed to have gone extinct in 2006. The decline in the baiji population is attributed to a variety of factors including overfishing, boat traffic, habitat destruction and poaching. Deemed "the goddess of the river," the dolphin's skin was highly valuable and traded on the Chinese market.

The main cause of the vaquita's decline is entanglement in gillnets used to illegally catch totoaba, (Totoaba macdonaldi), a large fish which shares habitat with vaquitas and is also endangered.

The two species are facing the same destiny – one as a target species and one as bycatch. The Totoaba’s maw (or swim bladder) — organs used to control its buoyancy in water — are illegally exported to China where they sell for thousands of dollars a pound. According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, the maw, which is used in soups and stews, is supposed to aid fertility, improve blood circulation and help heal certain skin conditions.

Although Mexico banned all totoaba fishing in 1975, illegal fishing and illegal exports to China, including through the United States, have soared in recent years as demand in China for totoaba swim-bladders has increased.

A surge in totoaba maw trade began around 2010 and peaked in 2014 as prices increased rapidly.  The illegal trade continues with large swim bladders being worth more than $5,000 a pound. In order to make inroads in the conservation of both the totoaba and the vaquita, much more needs to be done to crack down on this illegal trade, stop demand for totoaba maw, and crack down on gillnetting activities in the vaquita range more aggressively.

There have been efforts to protect these species in the past. A biosphere reserve was established for the Upper Gulf of California in 1993 which unfortunately included very little enforcement and ultimately did not protect the vaquita, or the totoaba.  Then in 2015, the Mexican government announced an emergency gillnet-fishing ban, but similarly, enforcement efforts have not staved vaquita mortality and Mexico continues to struggle with combatting organized crime gangs that are engaged in illegal fishing in the Gulf of California.

The good news is that in September, the Mexican government introduced further restrictions on fishing in the region, including a permanent ban on gillnets in the region, a ban on fishing at night, and a restriction on ports that can be used for fisheries.

While scientists and conservationists alike have welcomed this decision as a move in the right direction, some environmental groups like Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project, say the area of the gillnet ban should be wider than the 30-mile radius in the upper part of the Gulf of California since there are chances that some vaquitas swim beyond this area.   

There is also continuing apprehension as to whether the ban will be accompanied by enough strict enforcement efforts to save the vaquita from extinction.




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