The vaquita porpoise, one of the world’s smallest porpoises located in the Gulf of California, Mexico, is set to be extinct much sooner than researchers had predicted. Vaquita means “little cow” in Spanish and the small porpoises are known as the “panda of the seas” thanks to the rings around their eyes. The population of vaquita porpoises worldwide is down to an astonishing 30. Activists and researchers concerned with the plight of the porpoises are now scrambling to ensure this sea creature is not lost forever.
Why Are They Going Extinct?
Unlike many endangered species that are threatened by many factors such as hunting, dwindling food sources and loss of habitat, vaquitas seem to have only one major cause of their extinction: gill nets. Katie O’Connell, a consultant with the Animal Welfare Institute, puts it plainly, “We know what the problem is: it’s gill nets. We’ve known for 30 years that gill nets kill vaquita and we have done nothing, and I find that heartbreaking.”
Gill nets are used by fishermen to capture totoabas, another endangered fish. In many areas, the use of gill nets and fishing for totoabas is illegal. However, the lucrative totoaba market makes the risk worth it. The bladder of the totoaba is believed to have medicinal properties and can go for tens of thousands of dollars. Unfortunately, the same nets that are used to capture totoabas often ensnare vaquitas. The International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) estimates that gill nets kill between 40 and 85 vaquitas every year.
What is Being Done About Gill Nets?
The Mexican government is very concerned with the issue and has spent millions of dollars trying to find lasting solutions. They have offered incentives to local fishermen who stop using gill nets and have implemented a ban against the use of gill nets. Unfortunately, there aren’t many options that are as effective as the gill nets and bans are widely ignored and poorly enforced. In 2015, President Enrique Peña Nieto enacted an emergency ban that covered 5000 square miles of water along the coast and even used the navy to help enforce the ban. Last year, President Barack Obama also signed on to help enforce the ban. Despite all the legislation and increased efforts, the vaquita porpoise population has still dwindled to unimaginable numbers.
One reason for the decreasing population during the ban may be the loophole. O’Connell explains, “As long as that loophole is there it’s unlikely we can do much to protect the vaquita. We need a permanent ban on gill nets in the upper Gulf of California.” The loophole allows for gill net fishing of corvina in legal fisheries. However, this loophole easily helps disguise illegal gill net fishing. CIRVA conducted a survey during the ban and found 31 illegal gill nets in areas frequented by vaquitas in a 15 day period. In more terrible news, the current ban is set to expire in April and there is no assurance that it will be renewed.
How Else Can We Save Them?
Since the elimination of gill nets seems unlikely given the current ban, activists are looking at other avenues to save the vaquita porpoise. One option is to move some vaquitas into a temporary sanctuary and keep them in captivity until they can be safely reintroduced to their natural habitat. However, this plan poses some risks.
Vaquitas have never been taken into captivity and while other porpoises have done well, it’s unclear whether the vaquitas will be able to survive the transition to a temporary life in captivity. Vaquitas are also extremely shy. They avoid boats and humans. Vaquitas dwell in murky waters and only stay in small groups. Because of this, they may be hard to find and capture. And of course, given their extremely small population, finding a vaquita will prove very difficult.
Is There Hope?
In 1997, 567 vaquitas were living in the Gulf of California, Mexico. In 2015 that number was down to 60 and now the most recent report tells us there are only 30 vaquitas left in the world. Vaquitas share some genes with ancient species and, as such, are important for scientific research. They also help to balance the Gulf of California marine ecosystem. They act as food for sharks and feed on other fish and crustaceans in the area. Losing the vaquitas would be a major loss for science and a huge disruption to the Gulf’s ecosystem.
Luckily, researchers do have some hope for the vaquita porpoise. In order to help capture them, the US Navy Marine Mammal Program will be using trained dolphins to help locate the vaquitas and bring them into temporary captivity. History also gives activists and researchers hope. In the 19th century, the northern elephant seal was almost extinct with less than 100 seals worldwide. Thanks to rescue efforts, the population rebounded and there are over 100,000 northern elephant seals alive today.
But activists stress that the time to act to save the vaquitas is now. Barbara Taylor from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said, “We can’t afford to wait anymore. They’re going to be gone in a year or two... Right now the clock is ticking, and we’re not winning.”