The vaquita marinas are on the verge of extinction, with only 60 individuals remaining in the wild.
The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is a rare species of porpoise endemic to the northern part of the Gulf of California. The word vaquita is Spanish for "little cow", and it's easy to see why the species was named so. But despite all its cuteness, vaquitas have all but went extinct: only about remain in the Gulf of California, according to a report presented this week to Mexico’s Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources and the governor of Baja California. This represents a decline of more than 92% since 1997.
“We are watching this precious native species disappear before our eyes,” said Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, chair of CIRVA and co-chief scientist of the survey. “Our latest survey confirms the catastrophic decline before the emergency gillnet ban. This gillnet ban and strong enforcement must continue if we are to have any hope of saving the vaquita.”
These feelings have been echoed by other environmental and conservation groups.
“The vaquita is at the edge of extinction,” the World Wildlife Fund said in a statement, warning that 20 percent more have probably died in nets since January.
The biggest reason why this is happening is still illegal fishing, despite the Mexican Navy’s efforts to protect it and its habitat. Poachers don't want to capture the vaquitas, they are aiming for the totoaba, another endangered species (of fish) highly sought on the Chinese black market for its swim bladder. The totoaba’s swim bladder is dried, smuggled across the border to California and then shipped to China where it's sold as a delicacy, with prices going at around $10,000 per kilogram ($5,000 per pound).
Before this, vaquitas were already threatened by long gill nets set by local fishermen to catch shrimp and finfish. President Enrique Pena Nieto imposed a two-year ban on gillnets in April 2015 and increased the vaquita protection area tenfold to 13,000 square kilometers (5,000 square miles), but there has still been no noticeable effect. Efforts to encourage locals to focus on other activities (such as tourism) have largely failed, even though the Mexican government has agreed to compensate local fishermen in a $30 million a year program to give up gillnet fishing and look for other, safer and more legal sources of income.
US Navy sailors told AFP that they were catching gillnets every day — three to 10 times the length of a football field, often ensnaring totoabas, dolphins and turtles. The fines are very small, and even if caught, the poachers often just go back to fishing again. Corruption is also reportedly running rampant through the areas. But there is still hope - if we act now.
“At WWF we are convinced that it is still possible to save the vaquita, but this is clearly its last chance,” said WWF’s Mexico director, Omar Vidal.
The environment ministry said 600 nets were seized in the past year while 77 people were detained. Rafael Pacchiano, Mexico’s Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources, stated that federal authorities are working in a coordinated and committed manner to prevent illegal fishing of totoaba in the area that is safeguarded for vaquitas.
“Surveillance operations were intensified, especially at night, by incorporating equipment and personnel from the Agency of Environmental Protection (PROFEPA), the Navy of Mexico, the Federal Police and the Department of Fisheries, allowing greater land and maritime surveillance during the curvina fishing season in April,” Secretary Pacchiano said.
But with fines remaining small and without a firm ban on all such fishing in the area, it's hard to see a future for the vaquitas. Also, with the Chinese black market increasing its demand year after year, things aren't looking too bright. This is a responsibility all three governments (US, Mexico, China) have to carry out if they want to save the small creatures.