With only 30 individuals left in the wild, the vaquita porpoise, the smallest of all marine mammals, could soon disappear completely. But the Government of Mexico is taking urgent action to bring the species back from the brink.
The vaquita, which inhabits the shallow waters of the Gulf of California, has seen its numbers decline by more than 90 per cent in the last two decades. This is mainly the result of illegal fishing for totoaba, an endangered fish whose swim bladders are prized in China. Vaquitas drown when they get caught in the huge gillnets used to catch the totoaba and can’t get to the surface for air.
On 7 June, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto announced that the country’s ban on gillnets would be extended and made permanent. The decision came into force on 30 June. He also signed an agreement that details additional protections: To discourage skirting the rules, nighttime fishing will be prohibited and vessels that operate in the protected zone will be required to pass through monitored entry and exit points. The agreement was also signed by Mexico’s Secretaries for the Environment, Agriculture and Navy.
Further, some of the remaining vaquitas will be captured and introduced into a captive breeding programme, which is the only remaining hope for the survival of the species. Success is not guaranteed, however, as porpoises kept in captivity are highly sensitive to disturbance and stress.
The US Navy’s trained dolphins will work alongside aircraft and a spotter vessel to locate the remaining vaquitas, which will be captured with a light salmon gillnet. Some of the vaquitas might be satellite-tagged and released for research purposes, while others will be kept captive for breeding. The latter vaquitas would be transferred to sea pens along the shore of the gulf, with large pools on land also available for special care if needed. Once gillnets have been successfully banned in the habitat area, captive vaquitas could be released back into the wild.
Vaquita fast facts
· 8 July is International Save the Vaquita Day.
· The vaquita has only been known to science since 1958.
· Vaquita means “little cow” in Spanish.
· At about 1.5 m long, it’s the smallest species of cetacean.
· The range (ca. 4,000 sq km) is only about 1/4 the size of metropolitan Los Angeles.
· Unlike other porpoises, vaquitas give birth only every other year
· Calves are born in March/April.
· They live to be about 20-21 years old.
· Vaquitas have never been held captive in aquaria.
· The vaquita is the rarest and most-endangered species of marine mammal in the world.
For further information: Lisa.Rolls[at}unep.org