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Experts: Mexico’s Vaquita porpoise headed toward extinction

The population of Mexico’s endangered vaquita marina, the world’s smallest porpoise, has fallen to alarmingly low levels and is heading toward extinction soon if drastic measures aren’t taken, scientists warned Friday.

According to results of a survey released in the evening by the country’s Environment Department, as of December there were probably only about 60 of the shy, elusive creatures left in the upper Gulf of California, the only place where the vaquitas are found.

The vaquitas are threatened primarily by gillnet fishing for the totoaba fish, another endangered species in the area that is hunted for its swim bladder, considered a delicacy in China.

The study was conducted by the International Commission for the Recovery of the Vaquita using a team of boats and acoustic devices to detect their sonar-like squeaks or clicks. One scientist who participated said it was like listening to a room full of people clapping, and then hearing less and less clapping as the population dwindled.

The last such survey found just under 100 vaquitas in 2014. Overall, their numbers are down 92 percent since 1997.

“We are watching this precious native species disappear before our eyes,” said Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, chair of the commission and the survey’s co-chief scientist.

Even since the most recent study was conducted, three vaquitas were found dead during just three weeks in March by the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, leading some to fear their numbers could be significantly lower.

“Finding three vaquitas in three weeks is finding one dead vaquita per week,” Sea Shepherd captain Oona Layolle said. “If we look at the rate the vaquita population has been killed and the intensity of illegal activity at night, there are very likely fewer than 30 vaquita left. If we continue losing the vaquita at this rate it will be extinct by this coming December.”

Others offer a slightly less dire outlook but still say the situation is critical.

Omar Vidal of the World Wildlife Fund’s Mexico office said he believes there are likely fewer vaquitas remaining than the 60 found by the survey.

“I believe that it is still possible to save the vaquita, but this is clearly our last chance,” Vidal said. “The Mexican, U.S. and Chinese governments need to take urgent and coordinated action to stop the illegal fishing, trafficking and consumption of totoaba products. In the end, if the vaquita goes extinct it would inevitably be a shared responsibility of the three countries.”

Dried totoaba bladders are often smuggled through the United States to China.

Vidal called on the Mexican government to essentially ban all commercial fishing in the upper Gulf of California. At present the Mexican navy and environmental authorities patrol the area, but some legal fishing boats may clandestinely be setting nets for totoaba.

In April 2015, Mexican authorities announced a $70 million plan to ban gillnet fishing in about half of the upper Gulf. The plan promised to compensate fisherman for not using gillnets and offered them alternative, safer nets.

However that has not been effective for reasons ranging from the very high payoff _ a totoaba bladder can sell for $5,000 in the United States and double that in Asia — to inefficiency in the compensation program. Some say criminal gangs may be involved in the illicit trade.

Mexican Environment Secretary Rafael Pacchiano said he regretted the death of the three vaquitas found so far this year. He called for strengthening protections for the species and urged fishermen to report illegal activities.

Alejandro Olivera of the Center for Biological Diversity said a large part of the problem is the 800 or more boats legally fishing for corvina in the area. Some totoaba fishermen appear to have hidden among those boats, or some corvina boats set out nets for totoaba as well.

Olivera also said there has been a grossly unequal distribution of the government compensation funds for not setting out gillnets. Most of the 2,700 local fishermen received just $220 to $440 per month while a handful got as much as $63,000, according to documents he obtained through a freedom of information request.

If officials are unable to halt the vaquita’s decline, it risks becoming the fifth marine mammal to go extinct in modern times, according to the World Wildlife Foundation.

The Steller’s sea cow disappeared in 1768, the Caribbean monk seal in 1952, the Japanese sea lion in 1970 and the Chinese river dolphin in 2006.

While capture and captive breeding remain as a possible last resort, no one has ever succeeded in keeping a vaquita alive in captivity, much less breeding them.

Activists said extinction could also end the kind of shielding effect that the protections for the charismatic porpoises resulted in for the surrounding habitat.

“Once the vaquita is gone, enforcement would probably come to an end,” Vidal said. “The remaining marine life — the totoaba, shrimp, corvina, sharks, sea turtles —will follow the same path.”

Survey: only 50 vaquita porpoises remain on Earth

A new scientific report finds that vaquita porpoises declined by more than 40 percent in a single year and consequently only around 50 individuals of the species likely remain on Earth.

The vaquita is the world’s smallest and most endangered porpoise, found only in Mexico’s northern Gulf of California.

While the vaquita population has been declining for decades, based on data through 2013, an international team of scientists concluded a year ago that fewer than 100 animals remained. The new report documents a 42 percent decline from 2013 to 2014, with additional animals killed in late 2014 and early 2015 before a fishing ban was instituted in April 2015.

“It’s horrifying to witness, in real time, the extinction of an animal right in front of our eyes,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Without drastic help, vaquitas could vanish completely in just a few years. We need the world to wake up and help save these incredible porpoises.”

Fishing gear is the biggest threat to vaquitas. They often drown after becoming entangled in shrimp nets or in illegal gillnets set for totoaba, an endangered fish that is also only found only in the Gulf of California. The totoaba’s swim bladder is illegally exported to Asia to make soup and for unproven treatments in traditional medicine. Demand for totoaba bladders has spiked recently, and a single totoaba bladder can sell for $14,000 (U.S.).

“We’re truly at the brink of losing the vaquita forever,” said Zak Smith, staff attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Marine Mammal Protection Project. “It’s inexcusable that vaquita are paying the price for Mexico’s history of ineffective and half-hearted efforts to ‘protect’ them. Now, only the most extreme measures will help, and that means a zero-tolerance enforcement of the gillnet ban in the Gulf of California.”

Recognizing the need for urgent action, in April Mexico announced a two-year ban on most gillnets in the northern Gulf of California and promised to increase enforcement against the growing illegal totoaba fishery. While Mexico’s actions are commendable, today’s new scientific report emphasizes that its actions may be too little, too late, and a permanent ban on nets in the Gulf and rigorous enforcement of that ban are necessary to save the vaquita.

The report also finds that Mexico’s previous efforts to ban fishing in vaquita habitat were unsuccessful. In fact, the number of boats within the porpoise’s habitat actually increased during the Mexican government’s previous efforts to ban fishing. Unless Mexico’s newest conservation measures are aggressively enforced, the vaquita will not survive. 

Conservation groups have requested that the Obama administration impose trade sanctions against Mexico to stop the country’s illegal totoaba fishery. That could include a boycott of shrimp from Mexico. Groups have also sought “in danger” status for the Gulf of California World Heritage site that was designated, largely to protect the vaquita and the totoaba.

A new population survey for vaquita by U.S. and Mexican scientists is scheduled to start in September, around the time that fishing activity, and hence vaquita mortality, is at its highest.