The world’s most endangered marine mammal, a small porpoise called the vaquita, is clinging to existence and appears to benefit from new conservation measures, according to the results of a new scientific investigation into the species that was made public on Wednesday.
An international team of scientists has estimated that at least 10 vaquitas remain in the Gulf of California, the waters that separate Baja California from the Mexican mainland. Porpoises are found nowhere else and were driven to the brink of extinction by drowning in gillnets, a type of fishing gear that drifts like a huge mesh tent, catching fish with its gills . Dolphins, sea turtles and vaquitas also become stranded and die when they cannot surface to breathe.
Today we have good news, hopeful news, said Mara Luisa Albores Gonzlez, Mexico’s environment and natural resources secretary, at a press conference announcing the poll results.
The researchers used visual identification and acoustic monitoring for 17 days in May to survey the population. Among the captured video footage of the elusive animals was a small dorsal fin surfacing alongside a larger one, evidence of a calf swimming alongside its mother.
The estimated number of vaquitas in the new survey was similar to the previous one, conducted in 2021. Back then, the researchers were amazed at what else they saw: more than 100 fishing boats in a highly protected area known as a zero-tolerance area. At the time, the Mexican Navy acknowledged its lack of enforcement to the Times.
Since then, the navy has begun working more closely with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a non-profit organization that patrols the region for gillnets. And last year, the navy took a major new step, throwing a grid of 193 concrete blocks with protruding hooks, designed to snag gillnets, into the zero-tolerance area. Gillnets appear to have declined by more than 90 percent, the new report notes.
It’s the biggest conservation success for the vaquita I’ve seen in 30 years, said Barbara Taylor, a biologist and vaquita expert who led the survey and who recently retired from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries.
But more will be needed to save the species, he said. While no gillnet was observed within the zero-tolerance area during the survey, it was only regularly observed in the northwest, where vaquitas were also sighted. Officially, the equipment is prohibited in a wider area beyond the zero-tolerance area.
The report recommends expanding the use of cinder blocks.
This is such easy, low-hanging fruit for the Mexican government, Dr. Taylor said. They know where to do it, they know where to go, they know it will make a difference now, before the next fishing season.
A more difficult step is the transition of local economies that rely on gillnets to new equipment. A large and endangered fish in the region, the totoaba, has made the situation particularly volatile because its swim bladder commands high prices in Asia, attracting illegal trafficking and organized crime. But legal species are also fished with gillnets, including prawns, croakers and mackerel.
A local effort to promote safe vaquita gear is run by a group called Fishing ABC. His methods produce a higher quality catch, but so far there is only enough demand from seafood buyers to support around 30 fishermen.
Katy Carpio works with ABC Fishing and was one of the few community members who participated in the survey, receiving training on how to identify animals. Out with the researchers, she saw a vaquita for the first time.
It was a big thrill, he said. Lots of happiness, adrenaline.
The animals are so rare and hard to spot that many in the community don’t believe they exist. They tell me, he was a dolphin, he was this, he was that, said Mrs. Carpio. And I tell them: “Wait until they release the results, then you will see the photos.”
The key to the future, he said, is finding solutions that work for both vaquitas and anglers.
Mexico has come under increasing international pressure to enforce gillnet fishing bans throughout the vaquita’s protected habitat. The country faces current or possible trade sanctions under two US laws, a global wildlife trade treaty and the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement.
Preserving the species by taking a certain number into captivity is not an option. An effort to do just that in 2017 was abandoned after an animal was so stressed by human contact it died.
Many very knowledgeable people thought the vaquita would be gone by now, said Kristin Nowell, executive director of Cetacean Action Treasury, a non-profit organization dedicated to saving the vaquita from extinction. The fact that it is doing better than expected gives Mexico one more chance to get it right.
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