In Mexico, Full, Permanent Ban on Nets Is Required to Save World’s Most Endangered Porpoise

ENSENADA, Mexico— Scientists announced today that fewer than 60 vaquita porpoises likely remain on Earth, down from 245 in 2008. The vaquita is the world’s smallest and most endangered porpoise, found only in Mexico’s northern Gulf of California. Without permanent and fully enforced protections, the species could be effectively extinct within six years.

The primary threat to vaquitas is entanglement in fishing gear, including in nets set for the totoaba, a large and endangered fish endemic to the Gulf. Totoaba swim bladders are illegally exported to Asia to make soup perceived to have medicinal properties. Demand for the bladders spiked around 2011, and a single bladder can reportedly sell for between $2,500 and $10,000.

Vaquita porpoises (Phocoena sinus). (Photo Credit: Center for Biological Diversity)

Vaquita porpoises (Phocoena sinus). (Photo Credit: Center for Biological Diversity)

“It’s heartwrenching to watch the vaquita plummet toward extinction in real time,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “If we’re going to avoid losing this species forever, Mexico must do much more to ensure its survival, and that should start with an immediate, permanent ban on fishing nets that are pushing vaquitas to the absolute brink of extinction.”

In 2015, in an effort to stem the vaquita’s decline, Mexico temporarily banned the use of gillnets within the vaquita’s range and promised to step up enforcement. But enforcement has not been as aggressive as needed, and an exception allowed fishermen to continue netting a fish called corvina. This spring, poachers took advantage of this loophole and used corvina fishing as a cover for continued totoaba poaching. As a result, in March, three vaquita were found dead due to entanglement.

“There’s no margin for error if we’re going to save the vaquita,” said Zak Smith, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Marine Mammal Protection Project. “Each and every remaining vaquita is vital to the species’ survival. If the species is going to make it beyond 2020, Mexico needs to take responsibility. Otherwise, the disappearance of vaquitas is on them.”

“The protection of the vaquita in the wild must be the absolute priority for the governments of Mexico, China and the United States,” said Susan Millward, executive director at the Animal Welfare Institute. “It is the responsibility of Mexico to end illegal fishing in the Upper Gulf of California, and to join with other countries engaged in the illegal trafficking of totoaba to stop this trade in order to save the vaquita.”

Scientists have long urged Mexico to adopt a permanent ban on nets in the Gulf of California, ensure rigorous enforcement to save the vaquita, and transition local fishermen to vaquita-safe gear. The new vaquita population estimate is based on observer data and acoustic monitoring conducted during a joint Mexico-U.S. vaquita research cruise last fall.

To prompt Mexico to action, the Center in 2014 requested that the Obama administration impose trade sanctions against Mexico to stop the country’s illegal totoaba fishery. And last year the Center and the Animal Welfare Institute sought “in danger” status for the Gulf of California World Heritage site that was designated, in part, to protect the vaquita and the totoaba. The issue may be considered at the upcoming World Heritage meeting in July. NRDC is sponsoring a motion before the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) 2016 World Conservation Congress that would result in the world’s conservation community calling for immediate action to save the vaquita.

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