World’s smallest porpoise nears extinction

Posted on May, 13 2016

Fishing closure and international action form last hope
MEXICO CITY – Mexican authorities must immediately and indefinitely close all fisheries within the habitat of Mexico’s critically endangered vaquita porpoise – or we will lose the species forever.

The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources of Mexico, referring to data from the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), said on Friday that only around 60 vaquitas remained in the upper Gulf of California -- the only place the species exists -- as of December 2015. This is a nearly 40 per cent decline from the 97 vaquitas that remained in 2014.

“We can still save the vaquita, but this is our last chance,” said Omar Vidal, CEO of WWF-Mexico. “The Mexican government must ban all fishing within the vaquita’s habitat now and until the species shows signs of recovery. Anything else is just wishful thinking.”

The vaquita is the world’s smallest cetacean – the group of mammals that includes porpoises, dolphins and whales. It is also the world’s most endangered marine mammal species.

The biggest threat to the vaquita is the use of fishing nets that inadvertently catch and drown them, most notably gillnets used to illegally catch the critically endangered totoaba fish. The totoaba’s swim bladder is a highly-prized delicacy in Asia that follows an illegal trade route from Mexico, through the United States, to China.

“Despite all the best efforts, we are losing the battle to stop totoaba fishing and save the vaquita,” said Vidal. “In addition to a fishing ban, Mexico, the United States, and China need to take urgent and coordinated action to stop the illegal fishing, trafficking and consumption of totoaba.”

Having declined over 90 per cent in just 20 years, the vaquita continues to plummet toward extinction despite a two-year ban on gillnet fishing that began in May 2015, as well as surveillance efforts by Mexico’s government, environmental authorities and military.

Millions of dollars have been spent compensating local fishermen for not fishing and to increase efforts to implement vaquita-safe fishing gear. Such equipment is critical to protecting the species and bringing sustainable livelihoods to impoverished fishing communities.

A surge in illegal totoaba fishing, undermining of compensation schemes and resistance to the use of the smart fishing gear are all contributing to the vaquita’s demise and create the need for a fisheries closure with stringent, year-round enforcement.

“We are on the brink of driving the fifth marine mammal species to extinction in modern times,” said Vidal. “For years, WWF has supported efforts to save the vaquita by working with the Mexican and US governments, local fishing communities, and other partners to implement sustainable fishing options. We will continue to do all we can to save this unique porpoise.”

Fishermen affected by any closure must be compensated accordingly and efforts must continue to develop fishing gear to ensure that fishermen and their families can have a more sustainable way of life. Once the vaquita is shown to be on a path to recovery, and sustainable vaquita-safe fishing methods can be fully adopted and enforced, fisheries should be reopened only to vaquita-safe gear.
Vaquita (Phocoena sinus). Foto de Thomas A. Jefferson del proyecto conjunto de investigación con la Coordinación de Investigación y Conservación de Mamíferos Marinos del Instituto Nacional de Ecología (INE). Foto obtenida de acuerdo al permiso No. DR7488708 de la Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP) de la SEMARNAT.
© Tom Jefferson
Vaquita or Gulf of California Harbor porpoise (Phocoena sinus) caught in fishing nets, Baja California, Mexico.
Vaquita or Gulf of California Harbor porpoise (Phocoena sinus) caught in fishing nets, Baja California, Mexico.
© National Geographic Stock/Flip Nicklin/Minden Pictures / WWF