Extinction is becoming a real threat faced by countless creatures across the animal kingdom. Famously, there are an estimated just 10 vaquitas remaining in the Gulf of California, Mexico. Now, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has issued the first-ever extinction alert in its 70-year history, to spur action to help the world’s tiniest and most endangered marine mammal.
“We wanted, with the extinction alert, to send the message to a wider audience and for everyone to understand how serious this is,” Dr Lindsay Porter, the vice-chair of the IWC’s scientific committee told The Guardian.
Vaquitas are the smallest of all the living cetacean species measuring between 1.2 and 1.5 meters (4-5 feet). They are only found in the Gulf of California and it's thought there are just 10 left, down from around 30 in 2017. The reason for this decline in the population is due to fishers using gillnets, a specialized flat net used for the illegal hunting of totoaba fish, which are sold into the lucrative traditional Chinese medicine black market.
“Despite nearly thirty years of repeated warnings, the vaquita hovers on the edge of extinction due to gillnet entanglement,” the IWC said in a statement.
Increasingly desperate efforts to save the animals from extinction have included the government teaming up with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Foundation to pledge to conserve their ecosystem, deploying Navy-trained dolphins to locate them, and various attempts to round up and move them to a specially protected marine refuge to start a captive breeding program, which had to be abandoned after the death of a female caught.
While there is a very real chance of this smallest marine mammal going extinct in our lifetimes, plans put in place by the Mexican navy have tried to create a zero-tolerance area (ZTA) using 193 concrete blocks to prevent the use of gillnet fishing. This measure has in theory caused a 90 percent decrease in gillnetting within this area, but may have shifted the problem to the edge of the ZTA.
In more positive news scientists have also observed the same number of vaquitas in May 2023 that were also seen in 2021 and 2019 near San Felipe, Mexico. All the animals, including a new calf, were feeding and observed to be healthy.
“There is at least one brand new baby vaquita,” said Porter. “They haven’t stopped breeding. If we can take away this one pressure, the population may recover. We can’t stop now.”
The IWC calls for a 100 percent ban on gillnet fishing and safe sustainable alternatives to protect the livelihoods of the fishing community and to give this species any hope of recovery.