Conservationists have been sounding the alarm for years over concerns that the world’s smallest porpoise is heading towards extinction, but things are looking even more dire with a prediction that they could disappear forever as soon as 2018.
The vaquita only exists in a small area in the Gulf of California, off the coast of Mexico, and even though they were only discovered in the late 1950s, they’ve become the rarest porpoise on earth.
Despite past efforts to protect them, they have continued to decline at an alarming rate. Over the past five years, their numbers have dropped by 90 percent, and they lost nearly half of their entire population between just 2015 and 2016. Today, there are believed to be 30 or fewer individuals left in existence, and they continue to suffer heartbreaking losses.
According to a report released by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), if things continue as they are, the vaquita could be gone within the next year.
One of their main threats is being killed as bycatch after getting entangled in gillnets used to catch shrimp and other fish. They’re also suffering as a result of illegal fishing targeting endangered totoaba for its swim bladder, which is used in Chinese medicine and is also considered a delicacy.
In 2015, the Mexican government announced a two-year ban on gillnet fishing in the vaquita’s range, in addition to increasing monitoring and enforcement of the ban, and compensating fishermen for their lost catches, but it hasn’t been effective enough and the ban is set to expire this month.
“Having discovered the vaquita less than sixty years ago, we humans have now brought it to the brink of extinction. Their incredibly low numbers are a stark reminder of how our efforts to protect this incredible species and its habitat are falling short. Unless we act decisively today, we could lose the vaquita forever,” said Jorge Rickards, acting CEO, WWF-Mexico.
While time is of the essence, advocates for the vaquita aren’t giving up on efforts that could help them survive. WWF is calling on Mexico to immediately enforce a permanent ban on all gillnets, remove ghost nets, and provide fishermen with alternative fishing gear, in addition to urging the U.S. and China to take steps to crack down on the illegal trade in totoaba parts moving through their borders. It’s also calling on the UNESCO World Heritage Committee and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) to hold any governments that fail to take action accountable.
Separately, following a call for a boycott of Mexican shrimp, conservation and animal advocacy organizations in the U.S. have petitioned the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to ban imports of seafood caught in the Gulf of California using gillnets.
As of 2022, the Marine Mammal Protection Act will require the U.S. to ban imports of seafood that kill marine mammals at a level above what is set in the U.S. for allowable bycatch. Even though the rule is a few years away from going into effect worldwide, the petitioners are hoping for an emergency application, because the vaquita simply doesn’t have that much time.
“We can’t continue to wait for Mexico to find the political will and courage to save the vaquita in the wild as the species declines toward extinction,” said DJ Schubert, wildlife biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute. “It’s time for the US to step up and use its laws to compel the Mexican government to save the species or to suffer the consequences of a ban on certain seafood exports.”
For more on how to help, check out organizations working to save the vaquita, including the World Wildlife Fund, Animal Welfare Institute, Center for Biological Diversity, Natural Resources Defense Council and Sea Shepherd.