Critically Endangered Porpoise on Brink of Extinction

Vaquita | Photo: Paula Olson, NOAA

The world's rarest marine mammal has seen its population drop by half in the last year, and will go extinct if extreme measures aren't taken to protect it, according to a report made public in late January.

The vaquita, a diminutive porpoise that lives only in the shallow northern reaches of the Gulf of California, was reportedly down to just 59 individuals as recently as March 2016. That was already a significant drop in vaquita numbers: in 2014, the porpoises numbered an estimated 97 individuals, which itself was down from around 200 in 2012.

But according to a recent report from the Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (CIRVA), an international group of scientists working to keep the vaquita from going extinct, the species' numbers have dropped even further, standing at an estimated 30 individuals as of August 2016, based on exhaustive acoustic surveys recording the animal's distinctive 'clicks." A population decline that severe almost certainly consigns the vaquita to extinction if nothing is done to help the animal regain ground.

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Chief among the threats to the vaquita is illegal gillnet fishing, taking place even in waters set aside by the Mexican government as a reserve for the porpoise, known scientifically as Phocoena sinus. Though the government of Mexico established a gillnet fishing ban throughout the northern Gulf in 2015, that ban expires in April, and enforcement has been sporadic. Fishing boats in the area often set illegal gillnets in an attempt to catch a marine fish called the totoaba, which is experiencing high black market demand due to unfounded belief in the medicinal properties of the fish's swim bladders. That market demand and the loss of the totoaba's historic larval rearing habitat in the brackish waters of the Colorado River's delta have pushed the fish itself into the endangered species category. Fishing for totoaba is thus illegal.

But with totoaba swim bladders fetching in excess of $18,000 each, the incentive for illegal gillnet fishing remains, with fishermen often using the legal fisheries for corvina and other Gulf species as cover. It's generally accepted that organized crime controls much of the illegal totoaba gillnet fishery.

And entanglement in totoaba gillnets is a major cause of mortality for vaquitas, who -- being mammals -- must surface every so often to breathe.

Mexican officials have expressed concern about the plight of the critically endangered cetacean, and made some gestures such as the gillnetting ban and establishment of a vaquita sanctuary in the Gulf east of the town of San Felipe. But activists charge that Mexico has been half-hearted at best in cracking down on illegal totoaba fishing, and point out that the government plans to reopen the corvina fishery in April -- likely providing cover for more illegal activity.

“There’s no time left for half-hearted efforts to save the vaquita,” said Zak Smith, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Marine Mammal Protection Project, one of the  environmental groups advocating for vaquita protection. “Mexico has a choice to make: Put in an all-out effort to permanently ban and remove all gillnets from vaquita habitat in the Gulf of California or be responsible for the extinction of this beautiful, unique porpoise. If they don’t take real action, the disappearance of vaquitas is on them.”

Vaquita caught in net
Vaquita caught in net | Photo: Proyecto Vaquita Marina

In addition to cracking down on fishing, that "real action" likely must also include a California condor-style captive breeding program, a program for which scientists with CIRVA are already preparing. Attempting to raise vaquitas in temporary sanctuaries, out of the reach of gillnets and other hazards, may be crucial in making sure the species doesn't die out altogether. Scientists hope to begin capture of vaquitas later this year, with the aid of bottlenose dolphins who have been trained to find vaquitas and signal their location to their human colleagues. 

That's an easy plan to describe. Carrying it out may not be so easy. Capturing vaquitas unharmed will prove tricky at best: the animals run away from powered boats and there's very little known about how well they do in conditions approaching captivity.

Souls of the Vermilion Sea: Searching for the Vaquita | Full Length (English Version), by Wild Lens

“Unlike condors, we expect that most vaquitas will remain in the wild as capturing even a few will be very difficult,“ says Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, lead vaquita researcher and head of CIRVA. “Having some is still better than having none. The decline is happening faster than solutions for illegal fishing, so we need to have multiple strategies.”

A consortium of universities, government agencies, and environmental groups in the U.S. and Mexico called VaquitaCPR has launched a crowdfunding and public education effort to help foot the bill for the experimental sanctuary breeding program and other measures to help save the vaquita. But while the breeding program may prove crucial to the species, ridding the vaquitas' wild habitat of the gillnets that endangered them in the first place is the only way to ensure the species' long-term survival.

“The decrease in the vaquita population by 90 percent over the last five years and almost 50 percent in 2015 alone shows there was never a real commitment by the Mexican authorities to combat totoaba fishing or gillnets in the vaquita’s habitat,” said Miguel Rivas, ocean campaigner for Greenpeace Mexico. "Totoaba and gillnet fishing continued and will finish off the few vaquita that remain in the wild if the authorities do not take real action."

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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