Only 10 Vaquita Porpoises Remain in the World, Scientists Announce
Scientists announced Thursday that only 10 vaquita porpoises likely remain in the world and that the animal's extinction is virtually assured without bold and immediate action.
The vaquita, the world's smallest and most endangered cetacean, is found only in Mexico's northern Gulf of California. The release of the new vaquita estimate comes just two days after reports of the possible first vaquita mortality of 2019. More details are expected in the coming days.
Thursday's announcement from the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita also calls on Mexico President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to end all gillnet fishing and adopt a "zero tolerance" policy of enforcement in the vaquita's small remaining habitat. The committee is an international team of scientific experts assembled in 1996 to assist in vaquita recovery efforts.
"One of Earth's most incredible creatures is about to be wiped off the planet forever," said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. "Yet Mexico has only made paper promises to protect these porpoises from deadly nets, without enforcement on the water. Time is running out for President Lopez Obrador to stop all gillnet fishing and save the vaquita."
The vaquita faces a single threat: entanglement in illegal gillnets set for shrimp and various fish species, including endangered totoaba. Totoaba swim bladders are illegally exported by organized criminal syndicates from Mexico to China, where they are highly valued for their perceived medicinal properties.
Despite efforts in Mexico to curb gillnet fishing of shrimp and other fish and efforts in China to reduce demand for totoaba, the vaquita's population dropped 50 percent in 2018, leaving an estimate of around 10 remaining vaquita, with no more than 22 and perhaps as few as six.
"There is only the tiniest sliver of hope remaining for the vaquita," said Kate O'Connell, a marine wildlife consultant with the Animal Welfare Institute. "Mexico must act decisively to ensure that all gillnet fishing is brought to an end throughout the Upper Gulf. If the vaquita is not immediately protected from this deadly fishing gear, it will go extinct on President Lopez Obrador's watch."
In 2017, in the face of international pressure, Mexico banned the use of most gillnets within the vaquita's range, but enforcement has been lacking. For example, during the 2018 illegal totoaba fishing season, nearly 400 active totoaba gillnets were documented in a small portion of the vaquita's range, and gillnets continue to be found within the vaquita refuge. Recent violence against conservationists in the region has limited critically important net removal efforts.
"If Mexico doesn't want to be guilty of wiping out a species, it needs to secure 100 percent gillnet-free habitat now," said Zak Smith, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council's Marine Mammal Protection Project. "What's happening to the vaquita is a disgrace and entirely preventable, yet the Obrador administration has not committed to a robust vaquita recovery plan and has already missed deadlines on vaquita conservation commitments."
"The organized criminal networks trafficking totoaba swim bladders from Mexico to China are responsible for the illegal fishing nets driving the vaquita to extinction," said Clare Perry, ocean campaign leader for the Environmental Investigation Agency. "Unless Mexico gets serious about enforcement and works with China and key transit countries to dismantle those networks, there is no hope for the remaining vaquita."
Despite the marine mammal's alarming decline, the international committee emphasized that the vaquita is not extinct and that recovery remains possible. They are still producing offspring, and the remaining animals are healthy, showing no signs of disease or malnutrition. The international community plays a critical role in vaquita conservation.
In 2018 a U.S. court temporarily banned the import of seafood caught with dangerous gillnets in vaquita habitat. This year parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the World Heritage Convention are considering additional conservation measures for the vaquita and totoaba.
On March 12th, 2019 The @MVFarleyMowat crew discovered a dead vaquita trapped in a totoaba gillnet. 🐬😢 Read the ar… https://t.co/leT1V0p8KW— Sea Shepherd SSCS (@Sea Shepherd SSCS)1552582471.0
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By Simon Montlake
For more than a decade, Susan Jane Brown has been battling to stop a natural gas pipeline and export terminal from being built in the backcountry of Oregon. As an attorney at the nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center, she has repeatedly argued that the project's environmental, social, and health costs are too high.
All that was before this month's deadly wildfires in Oregon shrouded the skies above her home office in Portland. "It puts a fine point on it. These fossil fuel projects are contributing to global climate change," she says.
Moderates Feeling the Heat<p>If elected, Mr. Biden has vowed to stop new drilling for oil and gas on federal land and in federal waters and to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate accord that President Donald Trump gave notice of quitting. He would reinstate Obama-era regulations of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, the largest component of natural gas.</p><p>The Biden climate platform also states that all federal infrastructure investments and federal permits would need to be assessed for their climate impacts. Analysts say such a test could impede future LNG plants and pipelines, though not those that already have federal approval. </p><p>Climate change activists who pushed for that language say much depends on who would have oversight of federal agencies that regulate the industry. Some are wary of Biden's reliance on advice from Obama-era officials, including former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who is now on the board of Southern Company, a utility, and a former Obama environmental aide, Heather Zichal, who has served on the board of Cheniere Energy, an LNG exporter. </p>
The Push for U.S. Fuel Exports<p>As vice president, Biden was part of an administration that pushed hard for global climate action while also promoting U.S. oil and gas exports to its allies and trading partners. As fracking boomed, Obama ended a 40-year ban on crude oil exports. In Europe, LNG was touted both as an alternative to coal and as strategic competition with Russian pipelines.</p><p>That much, at least, continued with President Trump. Under Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the agency referred to liquified U.S. hydrocarbons as "<a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/29/us/freedom-gas-energy-department.html" target="_blank">freedom gas</a>."</p><p>Mr. Trump has also championed the interests of coal, oil, and gas while denigrating the findings of government climate scientists. He rejected the Paris accord as unfair to the U.S. and detrimental to its economy, but has offered no alternative path to emissions cuts. </p><p>Still, Trump's foreign policy has not always served the LNG industry: Tariffs on foreign steel drove up pipeline costs, and a trade war with China stayed the hand of Chinese LNG importers wary of reliance on U.S. suppliers. </p><p>Even his regulatory rollbacks could be a double-edged sword. By relaxing curbs last month on methane leaks, the U.S. has ceded ground to European regulators who are drafting emissions standards that LNG producers are watching closely. "That's a precursor of fights that will be fought in all the rest of the developed world," says Mr. Hutchison. </p><p>Indeed, some oil-and-gas exporters had urged the Trump administration not to abandon the tougher rules, since they undercut their claim to offer a cleaner-burning way of producing heat and electricity. "U.S. LNG is not going to be able to compete in a world that's focused on methane emissions and intensity," says Erin Blanton, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. </p>
Stepping on the Gas<p>In July, the Department of Energy issued an export license to Jordan Cove's developer, Canada's Pembina Pipeline Corp. In a statement, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said the project would provide "reliable, affordable, and cleaner-burning natural gas to our allies around the world."</p><p>As a West Coast terminal, Jordan Cove offers a faster route to Asia where its capacity of 7.8 million tons of LNG a year could serve to heat more than 15 million homes. At its peak, its construction would also create 6,000 jobs, the company says, in a stagnant corner of Oregon.</p><p>But the project still lacks multiple local and state permits, and its biggest asset – a Pacific port – has become its biggest handicap, says Ms. Blanton. "They are putting infrastructure in a state where there's no political support for the pipeline or the terminal, unlike in Louisiana or Texas," she says. </p><p>Ms. Brown, the environmental lawyer, says she wants to see Jordan Cove buried, not just mothballed until natural gas prices recover. But she knows that it's only one among many LNG projects and that others will likely get built, even if Biden is elected in November, despite growing evidence of the harm caused by methane emissions. </p>
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