By Dr. Becker
Populations of the world's smallest porpoise, Mexico's vaquita marina, have declined by 92 percent since 1997.
A team of scientists established by the Mexican government, the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), warned that the animals face imminent extinction within five years — and possibly by 2018 — if increased protections aren't made.
Numbers of vaquitas, also known as the Gulf of California harbor porpoise, plummeted from an estimated 570 in 1997 to 250 in 2008. There are now only about 60 left in the wild. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF):1
"Vaquita, the world's most rare marine mammal, is on the edge of extinction. This little porpoise wasn't discovered until 1958 and a little over half a century later, we are on the brink of losing them forever."
Illegal Fishing Activities to Blame for Vaquitas' Decline
Illegal gillnetting for a critically endangered fish, the totoaba, is responsible for the rapid declines in vaquita populations. Both fishing for totoaba and the use of gillnets are currently illegal, but the fish are sought for their swim bladder nonetheless.
The swim bladders are dried and sold illegally on the black market in China. One pound of tortoaba swim bladder can bring a fisherman about $4,000, which is about half a year's income for a typical fisherman in the area.2
The use of gillnets, which are vertical nets designed to catch fish by their gills, is incredibly problematic, as it's estimated that 1 out of 5 five vaquitas get caught in the nets and drown.3
CIRVA has called for stronger protections, including a permanent ban on gillnets, to protect the species from extinction and help their recovery.
Emergency 2-Year Ban on Gillnets May Not Be Enough
The Mexican government has already undertaken what are being described as "unprecedented conservation actions" to help save vaquitas. In May 2015, a two-year ban on gillnets was put into place, and the vaquita protection area was increased 10-fold to encompass 5,000 square miles.
The Mexican government is compensating local fishing communities for lost income, and the Mexican Navy is in place to enforce the gillnet ban. However, environmental groups are concerned the ban is not enough to prevent vaquitas' extinction. As reported by Seeker:4
"The Mexican government agreed to compensate local fishermen in a $30 million a year program to give up gillnet fishing while they look for safer alternative nets.
But navy sailors told AFP [News] last month that they were catching gillnets every day — three to 10 times the length of a football field, often ensnaring totoabas, dolphins and turtles.
Captain Oona Isabelle Layolle, of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS), said fishermen are still sneaking out at night to cast their nets."
Vaquitas Only Live in the Gulf of California
Vaquitas have the smallest range of any marine cetacean (cetaceans include whales, dolphins and porpoises). They live only in the northern end of the Gulf of California, typically alone or in groups of up to three.
Vaquitas are shy and rarely seen, such that they were believed to be a myth up until their discovery in 1958. With a stubby nose, distinctive dark rings around their eyes and a dark line lining their mouth, vaquitas have a unique appearance.
They're also the smallest porpoise in the world, weighing in at 65 to 120 pounds and measuring 4 or 5 feet.5
Marine biologists are hoping the species can be saved before it's too late, and environmentalists are calling for a permanent gillnet ban that is effectively enforced to help them recover.
If actions aren't taken, vaquitas could quickly disappear, like the Chinese river dolphin recently did. Researchers declared the Chinese river dolphin, or baiji, extinct in 2006.
Biologists Hope to Save Vaquitas Before They Disappear Like China's River Dolphins
Like vaquitas, the dolphins lived only in a limited range — China's Yangtze River — and were dated back 20 million years. About 400 Chinese river dolphins remained in the 1980s, but their numbers shrank to less than 100 in the 1990s.
During a 2006 search of more than 2,100 miles of the river, no signs of the dolphins could be found.6
Barbara Taylor, Ph.D., a marine biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), was part of the search for the last remaining river dolphins as well as a recent research mission on vaquitas. She told National Geographic:7
"That was an incredibly depressing experience [finding that the river dolphins had vanished] … Here was a species that had been on the planet for 20 to 30 million years, and just like that it was gone.
We came back determined to keep our eye on the ball. We weren't going to let that happen again [referring to vaquitas]."
In one glimmer of hope, Taylor noted that vaquitas' habitat is healthy and the animals should be able to thrive in the region. The only thing stopping them is human activities.
"It would be criminal to lose this species," she told National Geographic.8 "There's nothing to prevent these animals from recovering if we just stop killing them."