Survey: only 50 vaquita porpoises remain on Earth
A new scientific report finds that vaquita porpoises declined by more than 40 percent in a single year and consequently only around 50 individuals of the species likely remain on Earth.
The vaquita is the world’s smallest and most endangered porpoise, found only in Mexico’s northern Gulf of California.
While the vaquita population has been declining for decades, based on data through 2013, an international team of scientists concluded a year ago that fewer than 100 animals remained. The new report documents a 42 percent decline from 2013 to 2014, with additional animals killed in late 2014 and early 2015 before a fishing ban was instituted in April 2015.
“It’s horrifying to witness, in real time, the extinction of an animal right in front of our eyes,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Without drastic help, vaquitas could vanish completely in just a few years. We need the world to wake up and help save these incredible porpoises.”
Fishing gear is the biggest threat to vaquitas. They often drown after becoming entangled in shrimp nets or in illegal gillnets set for totoaba, an endangered fish that is also only found only in the Gulf of California. The totoaba’s swim bladder is illegally exported to Asia to make soup and for unproven treatments in traditional medicine. Demand for totoaba bladders has spiked recently, and a single totoaba bladder can sell for $14,000 (U.S.).
“We’re truly at the brink of losing the vaquita forever,” said Zak Smith, staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Marine Mammal Protection Project. “It’s inexcusable that vaquita are paying the price for Mexico’s history of ineffective and half-hearted efforts to ‘protect’ them. Now, only the most extreme measures will help, and that means a zero-tolerance enforcement of the gillnet ban in the Gulf of California.”
Recognizing the need for urgent action, in April Mexico announced a two-year ban on most gillnets in the northern Gulf of California and promised to increase enforcement against the growing illegal totoaba fishery. While Mexico’s actions are commendable, today’s new scientific report emphasizes that its actions may be too little, too late, and a permanent ban on nets in the Gulf and rigorous enforcement of that ban are necessary to save the vaquita.
The report also finds that Mexico’s previous efforts to ban fishing in vaquita habitat were unsuccessful. In fact, the number of boats within the porpoise’s habitat actually increased during the Mexican government’s previous efforts to ban fishing. Unless Mexico’s newest conservation measures are aggressively enforced, the vaquita will not survive.
Conservation groups have requested that the Obama administration impose trade sanctions against Mexico to stop the country’s illegal totoaba fishery. That could include a boycott of shrimp from Mexico. Groups have also sought “in danger” status for the Gulf of California World Heritage site that was designated, largely to protect the vaquita and the totoaba.
A new population survey for vaquita by U.S. and Mexican scientists is scheduled to start in September, around the time that fishing activity, and hence vaquita mortality, is at its highest.