Can the Vaquita Be Saved?
Numerous lists of species that are likely to go extinct within the next few years have been published. Front and center on all of them is the tiny, critically endangered porpoise known as the vaquita.
Identified only 50 years ago, the vaquita is endemic to Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California. Reaching a maximum length of about four feet, the porpoise is gray, with dark stripes running from its flippers to the middle of its lower lip. Its eye is ringed with a broad black circle, giving it a charming, bespectacled “Harry Potter” sort of look. As recently as 20 years ago, there were still approximately 600 vaquita swimming in the Gulf—today there are less than 100. While climate change and habitat degradation have certainly played some role in the species’ rapid decline, the main threat facing this shy, small animal is entanglement in fishing gear, especially gillnets.
The fate of the vaquita has been inextricably entwined with yet another endangered Mexican species, the totoaba, a grouper-like fish that can grow up to six feet in length and weigh over 200 pounds. Initially, the vaquita was threatened by entanglement in gillnets being used to fish for totoaba. Totoaba was once sold as sea bass, and was subject to several periods of intense overfishing, finally resulting in a total fishing ban in 1975.
Although fishing for totoaba was prohibited, other fisheries continued to develop in the Upper Gulf, including a commercial fishery for shrimp. As a result, vaquita entanglements—as well as totoaba bycatch—continued to be a problem, and in 1993, Mexico's President Carlos Salinas declared the Upper Gulf of California to be a Biosphere Reserve. All resource exploitation was prohibited within a zone around the mouth of the Colorado River.
The biosphere plan also included a proposal to ban offshore shrimp trawling in a wider area, and restrict inshore fishers in small boats known as “pangas” to the use of gillnets with a mesh size of four inches or less in an effort to try to reduce entanglements of vaquita, totoaba and other bycatch species.
However, there was little enforcement of any of these regulations and vaquita entanglements continued. The biosphere reserve also did not cover the entirety of the animal’s habitat, and there were numerous instances of vaquita bycatch happening outside the reserve. So in 2005 the Mexican government took action again, establishing a Vaquita Refuge Area and the “Program for the Protection of the Vaquita.” The Mexican government transferred more than US$1 million to the states of Baja California and Sonora that border the Upper Gulf. The funds were to implement the vaquita protection program, including working with fishers to try alternative “vaquita-friendly gear,” and finding ways to boost non-fishing sources of income.
According to vaquita scientists, however, the number of pangas fishing with gillnets had actually doubled within the refuge by 2007. Clearly, the lack of regulatory enforcement was a major problem and efforts to provide alternate sources of income to local fishers were also failing. As a result of this information, there were international calls (including from the International Whaling Commission) to heighten efforts to prevent the extinction of the vaquita, calling on the world to support Mexican efforts by providing financial resources and expertise.
Unfortunately, a new threat to the vaquita’s survival has developed, raising the stakes to an entirely different level.
By 2008, a black market trade in totoaba swim bladders triggered a precipitous increase in illegal fishing in the Upper Gulf. ...
Please contact federal Advisory Council of Wildlife Trafficking chairwoman, Judith McHale, urging her to make saving the vaquita a priority: firstname.lastname@example.org.