Vaquita porpoise could survive … but only if illegal fishing stops immediately

Vaquita porpoise could survive … but only if illegal fishing stops immediately

Scientists studying the DNA of the world’s smallest cetacean and rarest marine mammal, the vaquita porpoise, have made a surprising and bittersweet discovery.

With a tiny population of fewer than 10 individuals left, the mammal was assumed by conservationists to be at a similar risk of harmful mutations and inbreeding as other species with small gene pools.

However, a team of international researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries (NOAA) and other institutes found that the porpoises (Phocoena sinus) have fewer harmful mutations and are thus likely to be better at avoiding the perils of inbreeding, relative to other species.

Unfortunately for the animals, which have a very small geographical range and only live in the upper part of the Gulf of California, between Baja California and Mexico, the biggest threat it faces is illegal fishing with gillnets – flat nets suspended vertically in the water that are notorious for also trapping whales and turtles. If that does not stop immediately, experts say, the species is unlikely to survive.

Christopher Kyriazis, a UCLA doctoral student in ecology and a co-lead author of the research, said: “Interestingly, we found the vaquita is not doomed by genetic factors, like harmful mutations, that tend to affect many other species whose gene pool has diminished to a similar point. Outlawed fishing remains their biggest threat.”

Lead Image: A vaquita porpoise, one of the world’s rarest mammals. Illegal totoaba fishing for the Chinese market has pushed them close to extinction. Photograph: Tom Jefferson/St Andrews University/PA.

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