Endangered species

Vaquita extinction alert issued

A new study reports that only 10 critically endangered vaquitas are left in the wild, prompting the issuing of an extinction alert.

Written by Oceanographic Staff
Photographs by Ralph Pace, Vaquita CPR & Matt Hardy

A recently published study established that the critically endangered vaquita, a small porpoise only found in the Gulf of California, has only 10 individuals left. The specie’s demise which has given it the title of the world’s most critically endangered marine mammal has been primarily linked to entanglement in gillnets, fishing nets that are now banned in the region.

Following the publication of the study, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) issued the first ‘extinction alert’ in its 70-year history to foster action at every level to save the species.

The scientific committee of the IWC said in a statement: “The extinction of the vaquita is inevitable unless 100% of gillnets are substituted immediately with alternative fishing gears that protect the vaquita and the livelihoods of fishers. If this doesn’t happen now, it will be too late.”

It further read: “The decline of the vaquita has continued despite a very clear understanding of both the cause (bycatch in gillnets) and the solution (replacement of gillnets with safe alternatives in the vaquita habitat).”

According to the statement, the vaquita is only found in the northern-most part of the Gulf of California, Mexico. Numbers have fallen from a population of approximately 570 in 1997 to around 10 animals in 2018. This number appears to have remained fairly constant since 2018, probably due to increased enforcement of gillnet bans and removal of nets. “But this effort needs to be 100% effective to start reversing the decline and bringing the vaquita back from the brink of extinction. An illegal, international trade in totoaba fish, found in the same waters, has complicated efforts to end gillnet fishing,” the statement argued.

Dr Lindsay Porter, the vice-chair of the IWC’s scientific committee said to The Guardian: “We wanted, with the extinction alert, to send the message to a wider audience and for everyone to understand how serious this is.”

While early and multi-disciplinary actions are needed that look beyond the immediate conservation concern to address wider factors, the IWC urges that a clear, single action is now needed now to save the vaquita: “There has never been a more appropriate time to take stock and learn lessons, and we must do things differently in the future. The vaquita’s plight exemplifies the challenges facing other dolphin and porpoise species living in coastal waters and struggling to survive alongside human activities, particularly fishing. Bycatch in fishing nets and entanglement in lines and other gear is estimated to kill more than 300,000 whales, dolphins and porpoises every year.”

In 2022, concrete blocks were placed in the area frequented by vaquitas, known as the zero tolerance area, to deter illegal gillnet fishing, while increased enforcement was also established. However, evidence has been found that illegal fishers have simply moved to new problem areas.

But according to Porter, there also have been some positive news despite the extinction alert, giving a glimmer of hope. “At least one baby vaquita had been spotted in the last year, a sign that the individuals are healthy,” she told The Guardian.


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Written by Oceanographic Staff
Photographs by Ralph Pace, Vaquita CPR & Matt Hardy

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