Critically endangered vaquitas’ extinction is “virtually assured” unless conservation efforts are stepped up.
Perhaps as few as 10 vaquita porpoises may remain in the wild so the critically endangered species’ extinction is “virtually assured” unless conservation efforts are stepped up significantly, conservationists warn.
The vaquita, the world’s smallest cetacean, has been hovering over the edge of extinction in its only habitat, Mexico’s northern Gulf of California, since the species was discovered by scientists in the late 1950s. Distinguished by the large dark rings around their eyes and dark patches on the lips, vaquitas often drown after getting entangled in gillnets employed by people engaged in illegal fishing in protected marine areas in the Gulf.
“The vaquita faces a single threat: entanglement in illegal gillnets set for shrimp and various fish species, including endangered totoaba,” the nonprofit Animal Welfare Institute notes in a press release. “Totoaba swim bladders are illegally exported by organized criminal syndicates from Mexico to China, where they are highly valued for their perceived medicinal properties.”
Because of illegal fishing the population of the endemic marine mammals has plummeted in the last few years. Only somewhere between 22 and six vaquitas are believed to be left in the sea. Estimates put their actual number at around 10.
“There is only the tiniest sliver of hope remaining for the vaquita,” says Kate O’Connell, a marine wildlife consultant with the Animal Welfare Institute. “Mexico must act decisively to ensure that all gillnet fishing is brought to an end throughout the Upper Gulf. If the vaquita is not immediately protected from this deadly fishing gear, it will go extinct on President Lopez Obrador’s watch.”
In 2017, Mexico gave in to international pressure and banned the use of most gillnets within the vaquita’s range. Yet enforcement efforts have remained wanting, not least because fishermen working for organized criminal networks may turn violent when confronted. Just last year, during the illegal totoaba fishing season, nearly 400 active totoaba gillnets were counted by conservationists in a small part of the vaquita’s range. Illegal fishing has been going on unabated since.
“If Mexico doesn’t want to be guilty of wiping out a species, it needs to secure 100 percent gillnet-free habitat now,” stresses Zak Smith, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Marine Mammal Protection Project. “What’s happening to the vaquita is a disgrace and entirely preventable, yet the Obrador administration has not committed to a robust vaquita recovery plan and has already missed deadlines on vaquita conservation commitments.”
To save the vaquita from extinction in the wild, law enforcement efforts will need to be stepped up to stop the operations of illegal smuggling networks from Mexico to China. “Unless Mexico gets serious about enforcement and works with China and key transit countries to dismantle those networks, there is no hope for the remaining vaquita,” says Clare Perry, an ocean campaign leader for the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA).