Vaquita News Sustainability
VAQUITA SMALLEST OF THE WORLD’S PORPOISE, DOLPHIN, AND WHALE SPECIES
A vaquita killed in a gillnet near El Golfo de Santa Clara, Sonora, Mexico.
Vaquita, Mexico’s tiny porpoise, is on verge of extinction
Omar Vidal is CEO of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in Mexico. He has worked for more than three decades on conservation of natural resources and sustainable development in Mexico, the Americas, Africa, Europe and Asia with the United Nations, universities and NGOs. The opinions expressed here are his.
(CNN) In April of last year, in the remote Mexican fishing town of San Felipe, Baja California, just over 120 miles south of the U.S. border, President Enrique Peña Nieto launched a bold national effort to improve the well-being of fishing communities in the Upper Gulf of California and to save the endangered vaquita (Spanish for “little cow”).
Only around 60 vaquitas remain, according to CIRVA.
Last chance to save the Vaquita
It’s one of the two smallest cetaceans in the world, just managing to nudge about 1.5metres long on a good day
Its name means ‘little cow’, though it is also called the ‘desert porpoise’ as it lives near arid Baja California. They are the only porpoises found in warm waters.
It was only described by science in 1958.
It has a tiny geographic range, at about 4,000 km2 (about the size of Cornwall) it’s amongst the smallest of any marine mammal.
It’s possibly one of the cutest sea mammals around (with dark eye patches giving it apassable panda look), although very few people have ever gotten a good look at a live vaquita…
Each year, about one in five vaquitas is drowned in fishing nets. Vaquitas are killed in gillnets, a widespread type of non-selective gear that has depleted several species of importance to the local economy, such as totoaba, sharks, manta rays, corvinas and other fish. Flanked by the heads of the army, navy, environment, fisheries, and social development departments, the President announced a two-year ban on the use of all gillnets (which inadvertently catch vaquitas and drown them), an unparalleled effort to save a species often referred to as the “Mexican panda” or “panda of the sea.”
The illegal fishing of totoaba — a large fish that lives only in the Gulf of California and is listed by Mexico, the United States and the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES) as endangered — did not materialize.
No one hunts vaquitas directly, but when vaquitas are entangled and die in gillnets, it’s because those gillnets are set to catch totoaba, and also shrimp and other fish. Fishermen target the totoaba for its swim bladder, which is prized in Asian cultures for making soup. I have stressed to President Peña Nieto that if the totoaba fishery does not stop, the fate of the vaquita will be sealed along with it.
Not only has totoaba fishing continued, but it actually increased wildly this year. The regular seizure of totoaba nets, the number of people jailed for fishing illegally, and the numbers of dead totoabas and vaquitas retrieved by federal authorities and environmental organizations underline this. And this happened despite the dozens of marines, boats, helicopters, raids on land and sea, and even drones that patrolled the region.
The truth is – we should be able to save the vaquita. We know where it lives, and we know that we humans are its biggest threat. Vaquitas are caught and killed as bycatch in a fishery targeting fish called totoaba. The swim bladders of the totoaba are prized as a delicacy for soup in China so there’s lucrative financial incentive for illicit fishing. It just so happens that totoaba are about the same size as a vaquita, which is really bad news for the porpoises when indiscriminate gillnets are used that catch them, too!
By stopping fishing entirely, or moving fully to fishing methods that can’t catch porpoises ‘by accident’, and protecting the vaquita’s habitat, this could and should be one of the easiest marine animals to conserve. Many of the recognisable marine critters at greatest risk of extinction, such as hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, sea turtles & manta rays have vast ranges, and are much trickier to protect fully from human impacts. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, of course, but it does surely make it all the more ridiculous if we can’t get our act together to save the vaquita.
To make matters worse, efforts to scale up the use of the vaquita-safe fishing techniques have also failed. The agencies responsible for fisheries management did not deliver what the President had asked of them
Several of the fishermen they selected to be financially compensated to stop fishing with gillnets allegedly continued to fish for totoaba, and the majority of fishermen chosen to use the vaquita-safe nets did not know how to or were not committed to fishing in this way.
For more information please visit the people that are helping the vaquita: