No more cetacean extinctions! It's our last chance to save the vaquita

| 27th November 2014
Vaquitas in the Sea of Cortes. Photo: unknown.
Vaquitas in the Sea of Cortes. Photo: unknown.
The 'vaquita', a small porpoise limited to a small area of Mexico's Gulf of California, is on the brink of extinction, writes Willie Mackenzie - its numbers reduced to around 100. But it's not too late to save it, by expanding a protected area and providing alternative livelihoods for local fishermen.
Without immediate, decisive action, the vaquita could become the second cetacean species to have been rendered extinct as a direct consequence of human activity in the present century.

The 'vaquita' is a beastie with some remarkable claims to fame. It's one of the two smallest cetaceans in the world, just managing to nudge about 1.5 metres (5ft) long on a good day.

Its name means 'little cow', though it is also called the 'desert porpoise' or 'Gulf of California porpoise' as it lives near arid Baja California. They are the only porpoises found in warm waters.

It was only described by science in 1958, and has a tiny geographic range at the north end of the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez. At about 4,000 km2 (about the size of Cornwall) it's among the smallest ranges of any marine mammal.

It's possibly one of the cutest sea mammals around (with dark eye patches giving it a passable panda look), although very few people have ever gotten a good look at a live vaquita...

    Oh yes. And it's likely to become extinct in just a few years.

    Fishery bycatch - what a way to go ...

    There are fewer than a hundred vaquitas left on the planet, and we humans are reducing that number by a staggering 17% each year!

    The truth is - we should be able to save the vaquita. We know where it lives, and we know that we humans are its biggest threat. Vaquitas are caught and killed as bycatch in a fishery targeting fish called totoaba.

    The swim bladders of the totoaba are prized as a delicacy for soup in China so there's lucrative financial incentive for illicit fishing. It just so happens that totoaba are about the same size as a vaquita, which is really bad news for the porpoises when indiscriminate gillnets are used that catch them, too!

    By stopping fishing entirely, or moving fully to fishing methods that can't catch porpoises 'by accident', and protecting the vaquita's habitat, this could and should be one of the easiest marine animals to conserve.

    Many of the recognisable marine critters at greatest risk of extinction, such as hammerhead sharks, whale sharks, sea turtles & manta rays have vast ranges, and are much trickier to protect fully from human impacts.

    That doesn't mean we shouldn't try, of course, but it does surely make it all the more ridiculous if we can't get our act together to save the vaquita.

    They have a 'marine protected area' - but it's too small

    In fact, in 2005 a 'marine protected area' was designated specifically to protect this tiny porpoise, covering the central part of its range (see map, right). But it's surrounded by heavily-fished areas, and ongoing fishing - both legal and illegal - is killing more and more porpoises.

    Without immediate, decisive action, the vaquita could become the second cetacean species to have been rendered extinct as a direct consequence of human activity in the present century.

    A much larger protected area has now been proposed (see map) in which fishing would still take place, but the gill nets in which the vaquitas are so often fatally entangled would be banned.

    As Nampan, the North Americas Marine Protected Areas Network reports: "Experts worldwide are in agreement that the surest way to prevent the extinction of the vaquita is to eliminate the use of entangling nets in the areas where vaquitas occur.

    "The immediate removal of such nets must be accompanied by one or more financial mechanisms to compensate the fishermen who can no longer pursue their livelihoods in the same way. This means that economic alternatives and vaquita-safe fishing methods must be developed and made available in the fishing communities of the northern Gulf.

    "It is crucial for the CEC to support Mexico's pursuit of these objectives. Without immediate, decisive action, the vaquita could become the second cetacean species to have been rendered extinct as a direct consequence of human activity in the present century."

    We owe it to the vaquitas to try to save them.

    Is that enough cetacean extinction now?

    This generation has already seen the extinction of the Baiji, a Chinese river dolphin. Other species are declining fast thanks to humanity, with ship strikes, pollution, habitat destruction, and irresponsible fishing taking an increasingly heavy toll.

    The vaquita is top of the list, but the future is also bleak for the Maui's dolphin, the North Atlantic right whale, the Ganges river dolphin, the Western Pacific gray whale, the Irrawaddy dolphin and many more.

    Then there are the ice whales - narwhals, beluga & bowheads - whose habitat is being destroyed and plundered as it melts away.

    We should be able to save the vaquita. But do we collectively care enough to do it? The President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, is considering introducing a new law that could protect the vaquita's home.

    Our encouragement will surely help him to reach the right decision.



    Action: Sign the petition to send a message to Enrique Peña Nieto and make sure he knows we want to save the vaquita.

    Find out more about vaquitas and how to save them:

    Willie Mackenzie is part of the Greenpeace UK biodiversity team. He works mostly on oceans and fishy issues. Twitter: @williemackenzie

    This article was originally published on the Greenpeace blog.

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