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Just 'Days' Left to Save 6 to 19 Remaining Vaquitas

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University of St. Andrews Communications Office

There are only between six and 19 vaquitas left, a new study has concluded, and, unless swift action is taken, the endangered species could go extinct within a year.


The world's smallest porpoises, found only in Mexico's Gulf of California, are threatened because they are caught by mistake in illegal gillnets. The study, published in Royal Society Open Science Wednesday, found that 10 had died this way from March 2016 to March 2019.

"Every day wasted is making a difference. The key thing is that we need action now," study co-author Len Thomas, an ecological statistician at the University of St. Andrews' Centre for Research into Ecological and Environmental Modelling, told Vice. "There are only days to do this."

Researchers from St. Andrews in Scotland, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Mexican government counted the vaquitas by listening for their echolocation clicks. It is easier to monitor the porpoises acoustically than visually, The Weather Channel explained. Since they began acoustic monitoring in 2011, the researchers have determined that the vaquita population has fallen by 98.6 percent.

That decline is due to the use of gillnets, large vertical nets that fishermen leave in the water to collect the totoaba whose bladders are important in traditional Chinese medicine, The Guardian explained.

Mexico banned fishing with gillnets in 2015, but despite this, the practice has continued. The researchers found that the vaquita population declined by 48 percent in 2017 and 47 percent in 2018. Their numbers are now dangerously low.

"Based on the uncertainty inherent in the models, the number could be as few as six," Thomas told The Guardian.

But Thomas also told Vice that the animals were not doomed as long as the political will to stop illegal fishing could be generated in time. The vaquitas' habitat is small enough to monitor effectively, and the animals are otherwise healthy.

"There are many instances of other species that recover from low population numbers," Thomas told Vice. "If we stopped illegal fishing, they could bounce back. It's not a reason at the moment to give up."

Sea Shepherd, a marine conservation group that actively works to help vaquitas by dredging up nets, also expressed hope.

"The important takeaway is that they're still out there," the group's science department coordinator Eva Hidalgo told The Guardian. "No matter how low the numbers are, there's still hope for the species if we manage to keep them safe. Sea Shepherd is doing as much as possible to ensure the area remains net-free. In recent years we have seen two vaquita calves, so they can be saved. As long as there is one vaquita left, we are going to continue to fight for them."

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