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Last chance for the vaquita

Last chance for the vaquita Paula Olson, NOAA
08 Dec
The world’s most endangered marine mammal has just been thrown a long overdue lifeline

In the warm waters of the northern gulf of California, nestled between the US and Mexico, the last 30 vaquita porpoises left in the wild live on the verge on extinction. At the 69th Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Geneva this December, Mexico announced its support for the recommendation to set up a high-level diplomatic mission. This involves a commitment to establish and adopt specific time-bound conservation actions, taken jointly by Mexico, China and the USA.

The recommendation was an intervention made by the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA), who welcome the new resolve of Mexico and the CITES.

‘Today’s decision provides a much-needed ray of hope for the vaquita, strengthening previous decisions of CITES which require the three Parties to make serious progress towards ending the illegal totoaba trade,’ said Clare Perry, Ocean Campaign Leader at the EIA.

This new commitment might be a step towards saving the vaquita, but significant challenges remain. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) the species ‘will become extinct without a fully enforced gillnet ban throughout their entire range.’

vaquita2A vaquita in the Gulf of California waters (Image: Paula Olsen/NOAA)

The vaquita, or phocoena sinus, is a small porpoise that grows to about 5ft, with a grey back and white underside. The northern region of the Gulf of California it calls home is the smallest territory of any of the 128 known species of marine mammal.

Vaquita have reached this precarious position largely due to the illegal use of gillnet fishing operations in Marine Protected Areas. The gillnets are used to catch totoaba fish whose dried swim bladders are highly sought-after in China, where they are used in soup, traditional medicine or simply as investments. Thousands of swim bladders are smuggled out of Mexico every year, the most common route being via the US, and fishermen can receive as much as $8,500 for each kilogram.

As a by-product of the illegal practice, many vaquita are caught and drowned, which has pushed a species only discovered in 1958 to the brink. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the last 20 years have seen vaquita numbers plummet from 567 in 1997, to 245 in 2008, with now just 30 remaing in the wild in 2016. This dramatic 95 per cent decline is almost entirely due to vaquita being accidentally caught in gillnet fishing.

As Perry explains, ‘By the time Mexico implemented a full ban, the population was precariously small and the illegal totoaba fishery had taken off which led to the recent calamitous decline.’

gillnet1Gillnet fishing is the main cause of death for the porpoise (Image: Shutterstock)

In practice, these new ‘time-bound actions’ agreed upon at the conference require dedicated cooperation and communication. The EIA recommends this should involve a task force of police, customs and immigration departments, proactively identifying totoaba trading networks through investigations and intelligence-gathering. This intelligence gathering can also involve using specialised investigation techniques that help reveal more offences, building a body of evidence against suspects.

As the totoaba traders are making a lot of money from a lucrative commodity, finacial investigations can ‘follow the money’ to reveal otherwise unseen criminal cooperation. Something that has been used to some success in clamping down on the ivory and rhino horn trade.

Realistically it is a very dire situation as scientists have predicted that the vaquita may not last through another season of illegal totoaba fishing, and we know this illegal fishing is happening right now

Unfortunately, Perry suggests these initiatives have yet to find traction. ‘To date there is no evidence that Mexico (source), US (transit) and China (destination) are working together to combat the illegal totoaba trade. A trilateral meeting in August 2017 promised “immediate” action, but to our knowledge they have only just agreed upon enforcement contact points from each country.’

With a species so close to extinction there is no room for complacency. ‘Realistically it is a very dire situation as scientists have predicted that the vaquita may not last through another season of illegal totoaba fishing,’ says Perry, ‘and we know this illegal fishing is happening right now. The biggest obstacle to success is the lack of political will across all parts of the Mexican government to target and disrupt the criminal networks that are facilitating the illegal totoaba fishing and smuggling.’

dried fish1Totoaba fish bladders are sought after in China, leading to vaquitas being caught as by-product in illegal fishing nets (Image: Creative Commons)

Despite this gloomy forecast, there is precedence for the recovery of a species on the brink. By the 1900s, the grey whale had been hunted to the edge of extinction. In 1937 it was given partial protection, then a decade later it received full protection by the International Whaling Commission. Given this chance to recover, there have now been reported sightings of the grey whale in the Mediterranean and off the coast of Namibia, leading some to suggest they might be repopulating breeding grounds not used for centuries.

whalejoe mckenna1The grey whale has recovered from near-extinction, giving hope for the vaquita’s chances (Image: Joe McKenna)

For Perry and the EIA, the new commitments from CITES and Mexico at least offer a more substantial deterrent, and with it a glimmer of hope that the vaquita follow the same path back as the grey whale. ‘It’s worth remembering,’ she says, ‘that Mexico has invited this mission, so hopefully that demonstrates a strong commitment to enforce any outcome.’

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