New Survey Reveals Precipitous Decline of Endangered Vaquita


 

Vaquitas in the upper Gulf of California. Photo credit: Paula Olson, 2008

Only about 60 vaquitas remain in the world, according to a new report recently released by Mexico's Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources and the governor of Baja California on the status of the rare Mexican porpoise.

NOAA Fisheries scientists assisted Mexican colleagues with the census that confirmed the porpoise remains one of the most endangered marine mammals on the planet. The population estimate of 60 vaquita represents a decline of more than 92 percent since 1997.

NOAA Fisheries scientists assisted Mexican colleagues with the census that used both visual and acoustic methods to assess the size of the remaining population of vaquita in the northern Gulf of California. The results were included in a report by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, which includes a series of recommendations for continued protections of the vaquita.


The vaquita population has declined 92% since 1997. Photo credit: CIRVA 2016

“These results come from an international panel that includes the leading experts on one of the most imperiled species in the world,” said Cisco Werner, director of NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center. “If the vaquita is going to recover, as we all hope for, science will help us understand the problems and seek the necessary solutions.”

The range-wide survey late last year confirmed earlier results from acoustic monitoring showing a catastrophic decline of vaquitas amid a resurgence of illegal gillnetting for an endangered fish, the totoaba. Air bladders from these fish enter the illegal wildlife trade in China, selling for thousands of dollars per kilogram.

CIRVA warns that accidental drowning in gillnets is rapidly driving the vaquita toward extinction. Previous research showed that the vaquita had declined from around 570 in 1997 to 250 in 2008.

CIRVA praised the unprecedented conservation actions already taken by the government of Mexico to reduce the impact of both illegal totoaba fishing and legal gillnetting. The President imposed an emergency two-year ban on gillnets throughout the range of the vaquita beginning in May 2015. The Mexican Navy oversees enforcement and local fishing communities are receiving millions of dollars of compensation for lost income. However, CIRVA stresses that the ban must become permanent if the species is to survive and recover.

Unless Mexico extends the gillnet ban and continues its strong commitment to combat illegal fishing, this small and critically endangered porpoise will be driven to extinction within five years, CIRVA concluded during a meeting last week in Ensenada, B.C. Mexico.

If the current 'emergency' gillnet ban is made permanent and, importantly, more effectively enforced, the vaquita may recover, says Barbara Taylor, co-chief scientist of the survey and a member of the recovery team. Taylor is a research scientist at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

Protections promoted the recovery of two other Mexican marine mammal species that had declined to very low levels.

"While there is good reason to expect that vaquitas could recover if deaths in gillnets were stopped," Taylor said, "if gillnetting is allowed to resume in the northern Gulf, the vaquita may be extinct by 2022."

For more information:

Listen to this news segment which originally aired on 22 May 2016: The last vaquitas The previous link is a link to Non-Federal government web site. Click to review NOAA Fisheries disclaimer (60 Minutes/CBS) 

SWFSC's Marine Mammal and Turtle Division vaquita research program

Additional links:
- Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT), Mexico The previous link is a link to Non-Federal government web site. Click to review NOAA Fisheries disclaimer
- IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group The previous link is a link to Non-Federal government web site. Click to review NOAA Fisheries disclaimer
- Operation Milagro, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society The previous link is a link to Non-Federal government web site. Click to review NOAA Fisheries disclaimer

Multi-media:
- Can the Vaquita be Saved from Extinction? NOAA Fisheries Podcast
- West Coast Regional Office, NOAA Fisheries Flicker
- Vaquita.tv, Saving the Desert Porpoise, Video The previous link is a link to Non-Federal government web site. Click to review NOAA Fisheries disclaimer
- Wild Lens, Souls of the Vermillion Sea, Video The previous link is a link to Non-Federal government web site. Click to review NOAA Fisheries disclaimer

SEMARNAT CIRVA VII press release The previous link is a link to Non-Federal government web site. Click to review NOAA Fisheries disclaimer