The vaquita – a little porpoise that lives only in Mexican waters and is the rarest marine mammal in the world – is rapidly diving towards extinction. According to a new report, just 10 of these animals remain, meaning we’re almost guaranteed to lose them forever.
Small and elusive, vaquitas have only been known about since 1958 and are found in the Gulf of California, the stretch of sea between Baja California and the rest of Mexico. The imperiled porpoises are both the smallest and most endangered cetaceans on Earth; in 2017 there were about 30, now just 10 remain.
In a new report, the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) outline their findings, and call on Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador to take urgent action to protect the species.
“Given the gravity of the current situation, we are writing to request you take immediate action to save the vaquita species from extinction,” they write. “The vaquita is on the edge of extinction and, unless action is taken now, the species will be lost within a few months or years during your administration.”
The vaquita’s survival is threatened due to demand for another creature that shares its habitat – the totoaba fish. These critically endangered fish are illegally caught using gillnets, and their swim bladders, which can fetch up to $46,000 per kilogram on the black market, are dried and smuggled to China by criminal gangs. The swim bladders are so valuable in China because they are mistakenly believed to have medicinal properties.
Unfortunately, vaquitas are simply accidental casualties of the totoaba poaching process, becoming tangled up in nets. While Mexico’s government has taken some action to mitigate the species’ decline, like creating a Vaquita Refuge Area, it has not done enough to curb the fishing practices causing its demise.
“We emphasize that the only remaining hope for the vaquita is to eliminate all gillnet fishing in the area where the last few vaquitas remain,” the researchers write.
“This is not an impossible task, as the area to be protected is not large,” they add, warning that the illegal fishery is growing and the perpetrators are becoming increasingly violent towards those removing illegal nets, legal fisherman, and the Mexican Navy.
Sadly, just a few days ago on March 12, the illegal gillnets claimed their first victim of 2019, as conservation group Sea Shepherd found a vaquita ensnared in a net inside the supposed Vaquita Refuge.
But all is not lost.
“There is still hope,” the researchers say. “Vaquitas are still producing calves, and the remaining animals are healthy.” Saving them rests with Mexico’s government, and whether it chooses to take stronger action to protect the vaquita from extinction. If the necessary steps are not made, vaquitas will join the long list of species assigned to history by humanity.