Vaquita population falls to just 60

Photo credit: Paula Olsen / NOAA

Photo credit: Paula Olsen / NOAA

The vaquita, the world’s smallest porpoise, is on the verge of extinction as the Mexican government reported that only 60 are now remaining.

Their rapid decline has been linked to another rare marine animal, the totoaba, a fish that has been illegally caught for its swim bladder. This is despite the fact that the Mexican government banned totoaba fishing back in 1975.

The swim bladders are thought to have medicinal qualities and are usually smuggled from Mexico into the United States and then shipped to Asia where they have a high demand as it is considered a delicacy. There it can sell for $10,000 per kilogram.

So how does this relate to the vaquita? Unfortunately poachers use illegal gillnets to catch totoabas which cause the accidental entanglement of vaquita.

The porpoise is endemic to the waters in Mexico’s Gulf of California and their numbers have been plummeting for many years now. The last census in 2014 found just under 100 individuals with their numbers down 92 percent since 1997. What is even more worrying is that three dead vaquitas have been discovered since this most recent study was conducted which raises concern that their numbers could be even lower.

To protect vaquitas, the Mexican government imposed a two-year ban on gillnet fishing in May 2015 along the northern Gulf of California, which the Mexican navy currently enforces. As part of their conservation efforts the government has also initiated a $70 million program to compensate fishermen for not using gill nets in April 2015. Additionally, the protected area in the northern part of the gulf has since been increased to 5,000 square miles. Despite these efforts it seems to not be enough to halt the species decline.

The Mexican, United States and Chinese governments all need to enforce stronger measures to prevent the illegal fishing and trafficking of the totoabas. Failure to do so could lead to all three countries having a shared responsibility for the vaquita’s extinction. If the vaquita does becomes extinct in the near future, it will be the fifth marine mammal to do so in recent times, following the fate of the Stellar’s sea cow, Caribbean monk seal, Japanese sea lion and Chinese river dolphin.

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Lucy Grable

Lucy Grable

MSc Species Identification and Survey Skills student at Reading Uni | BSc Marine Zoology | Website Editor MARINElife | Zanzibar humpback whale researcher|Marine wildlife enthusiast

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