The vaquita is the rarest, smallest and most endangered cetacean in the world. It’s estimated that fewer than 100 of the small porpoises remain in their wild habitat in Mexico’s northern Gulf of California. To make matters worse, a surge in illegal gillnetting in the area — including in a marine refuge set up to protect the creatures — is resulting in about 18 percent of the vaquita population dying each year as a result of being caught as bycatch. At this rate, it is estimated the vaquita will be extinct in the wild by 2018.
Mexico has long been under pressure to protect the endearingly odd-looking marine mammals. A biosphere reserve was set up specifically to protect them in 1993, and expanded in 2005. The vaquitas’ present range is only around 4,000 square kilometers (1,545 square miles), with the area of highest density around 2,235 square kilometers (863 square miles). The species was only formally described in 1958 and is thought to have never been particularly abundant. However, the IUCN’s Cetacean Specialist Group writes: “Its status has continued to deteriorate since then because of unrelenting pressure from incidental mortality in fisheries.”
While gillnet fishing in the refuge is officially prohibited, the ban is reportedly widely ignored. An aerial survey conducted on December 5, 2014, discovered 90 gillnet fishing boats inside the reserve, and 17 individual gillnetting activities were photographed. The gillnetting is primarily conducted for prawns, but more recently an illegal wildlife trade in the swim bladders of the endangered totoaba fish has flourished in the area, supplying a demand from China. Vaquita expert and professor of marine biology at Duke University Andrew Read told the Los Angeles Times, “It’s hard for Mexico to find the political will and resources needed to buy out the illegal fisheries. We understand that drug cartels have become involved in the illegal trade of swim bladders, which makes enforcement especially difficult.”
So where to now for the vaquitas? Mexican authorities have called for a new “vaquita abundance survey.” Rebecca Lent, executive director of the Marine Mammal Commission, counters, “We don’t need another study. The best scientists in the world have already looked at the data and concluded that the decline of the vaquita has accelerated because of unregulated gillnetting.” It is widely believed a total ban on gillnetting in the area is the only solution to save the creatures, although that will also have an impact upon the wider legal fishing industry. A coalition of 28 concerned groups is pursuing actions to secure protection, including a lawsuit to enforce existing U.S. foreign bycatch provisions, which would see shrimp imports that weren’t guaranteed “vaquita safe” banned, and lobbying the U.S. government to impose trade sanctions on Mexico for their failure to crack down on the illegal trade in totoaba swim bladders.
Photos via the IUCN