The shy, elusive vaquita is the smallest and most endangered porpoise in the world, with fewer than 20 remaining in their small range in the Gulf of California’s Sea of Cortez.
Vaquitas have been hanging on against all odds, despite the consistent threat of entanglement in gillnets used to illegally catch totoaba, a large fish that is also endangered and exclusively inhabits the Gulf of California. Totoaba are illegally caught for their swim bladders, sold to China at a premium for their purported medicinal properties.
According to a report from a recent research expedition that took place from May 10 to 26, from 10 to 13 vaquita were spotted by experts while sailing in a corner of the gulf where a similar number of the cetaceans were last seen in 2021, reported The Associated Press.
“We estimated that the sightings included 1-2 calves and there was a 76 percent probability that the total number seen, including calves, was between 10 and 13 individuals,” said a report issued by the NGO Sea Shepherd spearheading vaquita conservation efforts, as Phys.org reported. “Since the search was in a small portion of the vaquita’s historical range, 10-13 is considered a minimum estimate of the number of vaquitas left.”
Vaquitas are sometimes referred to as the “pandas of the sea” because of the dark rings around their eyes. They grow to about five feet in length and weigh around 120 pounds. Vaquitas can live to be at least 21 years old, and it is believed that females give birth to a single calf every other year, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Vaquita are often seen from afar through binoculars, and their “clicks” are picked up by acoustic monitoring devices, reported The Associated Press.
Experts from Sea Shepherd, NOAA and Mexico said there could be more vaquitas in the Sea of Cortez, since the expedition only searched part of their habitat.
Alex Olivera, the Mexico representative for the Center for Biological Diversity who did not take part in the expedition, commented that “this is encouraging news and it shows that vaquita are survivors. But we still need urgent conservation efforts to save these tiny porpoises from extinction,” as The Associated Press reported.
The vaquita population has been steadily declining due to the deadly gillnets and is down from nearly 600 in 1997 and 200 in 2008, according to NOAA. The Gulf of California’s Sea of Cortez makes up the vaquitas’ entire range, and attempts to capture and breed the timid porpoises have failed.
The Mexican government has attempted to halt gillnet fishing in the vaquita’s range by sinking concrete blocks fitted with hooks to snag the nets, but the fishing has continued, reported The Associated Press. Not only have fishers ignored the ban on gillnets in the porpoises’ range, they have sabotaged efforts to monitor them.
The expedition report noted that “fishermen have begun removing the acoustic devices (CPODs) used to record vaquita clicks. The data recorded on each device is lost, and it is expensive to replace the stolen CPODs. Unless enforcement of the fishing ban is effective and the theft of equipment is stopped, acoustic monitoring cannot collect data as it has in the past,” The Associated Press reported.
Sea Shepherd has been working with the Mexican Navy to discourage illegal fishing in the “no tolerance” zone of the vaquita refuge, but the illegal fishing has continued.
The administration of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has mostly refused to compensate fishers for ceasing to use gillnets in the area or monitor their activities there.
Chairman of Sea Shepherd Pritam Singh said patrols alongside the Mexican Navy lessened the amount of time fishing boats are in the restricted area by 79 percent last year, compared with the year before.
“It’s the biggest conservation success for vaquita that I’ve seen in 30 years,” said Barbara Taylor, a biologist and vaquita expert who recently retired from NOAA Fisheries and led the survey, as reported by The New York Times.
The last expedition in October of 2021 had 5 to 13 likely vaquita sightings, down from a survey two years earlier, The Associated Press reported.
Olivera estimated that “even in a gillnet-free habitat, it will take about 50 years for the population to return to where it was 15 years ago,” adding, “we need Mexico to urgently comply with existing regulations to prevent the vaquita from disappearing forever,” as reported by The Associated Press.
The Gulf of California was added to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s World Heritage in Danger list due to concerns of the imminent extinction of the vaquita.
“A lot of very experienced people thought that the vaquita would be gone by now,” said Kristin Nowell, executive director at Cetacean Action Treasury, a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving the vaquita, as The New York Times reported. “The fact that it’s doing better than expected gives Mexico one more chance to get this right.”
This article by Cristen Hemingway Jaynes was first published by EcoWatch on 8 June 2023. Lead Image: A vaquita porpoise. Sea Shepherd US / Facebook.
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