First-Ever Extinction Alert Issued for Vaquita Porpoise
The IWC says that a 100 percent ban on gillnets is immediately necessary to stop the extinction of the world’s smallest marine mammal.
“Recent studies show there are now only about 10 surviving animals, but they are not yet doomed to extinction,” the IWC statement said. “The Scientific Committee of the IWC is making this statement because it believes that 100% enforcement of a ban on gillnets in their core habitat is needed to give the vaquita a chance of recovery.”
The vaquita porpoise is only found in the northern part of Mexico’s Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez. In 1997, the first survey of population numbers estimated that there were fewer than 567 vaquita. Another survey in 2015 estimated the population had decreased to 59 individuals, and by 2018, just nine or 10 were left. That’s an 83 percent decline in three years.
The only real threat to the shy, endangered porpoise with the dark rings around its eyes are gillnets. The nets are not set to target vaquita, but they can become entangled in them.
“Vaquita become entangled in all types of gillnets. Shrimp gillnets are a significant problem, but the overwhelming impact in the last 10 years is from nets set for totoaba. The totoaba is a fish similar in size to the vaquita. Its value has skyrocketed due to the black market demand for totoaba swim bladders in Hong Kong and continental China. The involvement of organised crime in the totoaba fishery makes it particularly difficult and dangerous to address,” the IWC statement said.
Fishing for totoaba — also an endangered species due to overfishing and the degradation of the habitat they share with the vaquita — in the Sea of Cortez has been illegal since 1975. Designation of protected areas for parts of the vaquita’s habitat has been attempted, but factors like inadequate enforcement have meant the continuation of illegal fishing practices in the area.
“The decline of the vaquita has continued despite a very clear understanding of both the cause (bycatch in gillnets) and the solution (replacement of gillnets with safe alternatives in the vaquita habitat),” the statement said. “Conservation strategies must consider the interests of the threatened species, the interests of the people who live alongside it, and their economic and social circumstances. Only when all three are maximised, so that human livelihoods too are maintained, can sustainable species conservation be achieved.”
The top priority right now, however, is that all gillnet fishing in vaquita habitat stops immediately.
The IWC’s Scientific Committee, a group of about 200 scientists, is leading the initiative after concluding that “a new mechanism is needed to voice extinction concerns for an increasing range of cetacean species and populations,” a press release from the IWC said.
“We wanted, with the extinction alert, to send the message to a wider audience and for everyone to understand how serious this is,” said Dr. Lindsay Porter, the vice-chair of the IWC’s scientific committee, as The Guardian reported.
Vaquita numbers have remained fairly consistent for the past five years, likely because of the removal of gillnets. A program to retrieve fishing nets from core vaquita habitat began in 2016, and by 2019, more than 1,000 had been removed, according to the IWC statement.
Last year, the Mexican Navy, along with other government agencies, installed 193 structures on the seabed to deter gillnets, and since then it seems gillnet fishers have been steering clear of the zero tolerance zone and its surrounding buffer zone.
“But this effort needs to be 100% effective to start reversing the decline and bringing the vaquita back from the brink of extinction,” the statement said.
A ray of hope, Porter pointed out, is that the vaquita are still breeding.
“There is at least one brand new baby vaquita,” Porter said, as reported by The Guardian. “If we can take away this one pressure, the population may recover. We can’t stop now.”
The IWC Extinction Alert statement added that, while the gillnet deterrence structures seem to be promising, long-term results need to be monitored and shared with public media and scientific journals.
“The vaquita’s plight exemplifies the challenges facing other dolphin and porpoise species living in coastal waters and struggling to survive alongside human activities, particularly fishing. Bycatch in fishing nets and entanglement in lines and other gear is estimated to kill more than 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises every year,” the IWC statement said. “This statement is issued today to encourage wider recognition of the warning signs of impending extinctions, and to generate support and encouragement at every level for the actions needed now to save the vaquita.”