Only 30 specimens of the vaquita porpoise remain on planet Earth.
Amid international efforts to save the smallest porpoise, which has significantly dwindled in numbers since 2011, the population is now down to just 30.
As reported by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, nearly 50 percent of the world’s vaquitas disappeared from 2015 to 2016, with the population plummeting by 90 percent in the last five years alone.
Trapped In Gill Nets
“[T]he already desperate situation has worsened, despite existing conservation measures and current enforcement efforts,” wrote the CIRVA report authors, pointing to the need to eliminate vaquita mortality in illegal gill nets to prevent their extinction.
This porpoise species exclusively live in a small dwelling in the Gulf of California in Mexico, where illegal fishing using gill nets result in their death. These gill nets are typically used to target another endangered species called totoaba, famed for the supposed medicinal benefit of its swim bladder.
“They’re essentially taking out two endangered species in one fell swoop,” mourned marine wildlife expert Kate O’Connell from the Animal Welfare Institute, as reported by New Scientist. This, according to her, has been known for three decades now, and humans “have done nothing.”
The Mexican government, back in 2015, imposed a two-year ban on gill nets in the vaquitas' home territory. Enforcement, however, has been found wanting: 31 illegal gill nets in the territory, for instance, were detected during a 15-day survey back in October and November 2016.
Another loophole in the ban: gill nets are allowed to be used for corvina fishing, making it possible to disguise illegal totoaba fishing. A permanent ban on these nets should be imposed in the upper Gulf of California, urged O’Connell.
CIRVA also recommends placing some vaquitas in a temporary dwelling. Capturing the animals has never been previously attempted, and it is largely unknown how they will fare while in captivity.
Saving The 'Panda Of The Sea'
The 4.5-feet-long vaquita porpoise is sometimes referred to as the “panda of the sea” for its dark rings around the eyes and the threat of extinction due to human activity. Efforts apart from the two-year gill net ban include law enforcement by navy forces as well as $72 million in fishermen aid from the Mexican government, but these do not appear enough to save the species from danger.
Even CIRVA deemed the last-ditch effort to put the vaquitas in a temporary sanctuary “extremely difficult and expensive,” and offering no guarantee of success. The plan is to round them up and keep them in pens or pools on land, hope for them to safely breed while in semi-captive state, and release them into gill net-free waters in the future.
But scientists agree that we are running out of time.
“We can’t afford to wait anymore. They’re going to be gone in a year or two,” Barbara Taylor of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told Christian Science Monitor.
She said the planet will likely lose the small creatures unless more funds can be channeled into the global effort and the top experts working on conservation could get lucky “with a very difficult task.”
In early January, the U.S. Navy confirmed that highly trained bottlenose dolphins will join the fight to save the vaquita, sniffing out underwater mines and locating them in the Gulf of California, where the critically endangered animals live.