Mexico says it will take action to protect a tiny porpoise as the marine mammal has been driven to the edge of extinction by fishing, both legal and illegal, in the northern region of the Gulf of California.

The small marine mammal, known as the Vaquita porpoise, has come under threat by fishermen setting out illegal gill nets for large fish known as the totoaba, whose swim bladder is believed to have medicinal properties by many in China, where it is dried and cooked into soup.

Vaquitas, the world's smallest porpoises, are dying after becoming entangled in the illegal totoaba nets, officials say.

The nets are illegal because the totoaba itself is an endangered species.

Vaquitas are also vulnerable to gill nets used legally for catching shrimp, an industry that supports several thousand fishermen working in the gulf's northern waters.

Later this month the government will begin using drones, satellites and a fleet of patrol boats working out of three naval bases to monitor the fishing activities in the area, said Environment Department official Rafael Pacchiano.

The use of gill nets in 5,000 square miles of the upper Gulf of California will be banned for two years, he says, in an effort to protect the porpoises in the gulf, where fewer than 100 of the elusive mammals are thought to exist.

The Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez, is the only place on the planet where vaquita are found.

As part of the $37 million recovery plan fishermen will be compensated for lost shrimp catch earnings, officials say, while during the two-year moratorium researchers will try to develop vaquita-safe nets that will still allow fishermen to catch enough shrimp to make a living.

Conservationists greeted the move with approval, although they warn it may be too late.

"I really think that this is the last chance, and we had better get our act together," says Omar Vidal, the director of World Wildlife Fund Mexico.

More than 20 years of efforts to save the vaquita have slowed their decline but have not halted it, he said, welcoming the government's announcement.

"I think the government is very serious," he said.

The newly increased trade in totoaba is what has made the vaquitas' situation much more serious, officials said.

Totoaba swim bladders can sell for almost $500 a pound, which has attracted organized crime, which pays the fishermen to engage in illegal fishing and then smuggles the bladders into California to be shipped to China.

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