The vaquita (Phocoena sinus, often previously called the Gulf of California harbor porpoise) has been recognized as a rare and vulnerable species since its scientific discovery fifty years ago. There are a number of potential threats facing the species (including habitat alteration by the drastic reduction of freshwater flow of the Colorado River), and its limited range in shallow waters of the upper portion of Mexico’s Gulf of California is considered to be the smallest of any marine cetacean.
Although there is some controversy about the seriousness of other potential threats, without a doubt the primary threat facing the species is incidental kills in various fisheries, mainly in several gillnet fisheries. In fact, this is the only well-documented threat to the population, and studies on bycatch have given clear indications that the kills are unsustainable and undoubtedly causing the small population to decline.
The vaquita is listed as Critically Endangered (facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild) by the IUCN Red List authority, and has received a great deal of attention within the IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group, and the International Whaling Commission’s Small Cetacean Subcommittee. There is widespread acceptance within the marine mammal community of the extremely serious situation that the species is in, and for many years it has been considered the second-most endangered cetacean species, after the baiji (Lipotes vexillifer) of China’s Yangtze River.
With the recent discovery that the baiji is functionally-extinct, and probably extinct in absolute terms, the vaquita is now recognized as the most-endangered cetacean species in the world. Based on abundance estimated in 2008, there are estimated to be only 200 vaquitas remaining. Based on expected levels of decline, this means there is a window of about two years in which to implement solutions to save the species. After that, it will likely be too late.
In recent years, there been virtually unanimous agreement among researchers and conservationists examining the issue that what is needed to save the species is complete elimination of gillnet mortality. The International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) has convened three times to discuss the species’ situation, and has come to the same conclusion. Some limited progress has been made towards closing down the gillnet fisheries that threaten the vaquita, but not surprisingly this has proven challenging, and many fishermen and fishing collectives have been resistant. It is now clearly seen that the only hope for the species is a program that eliminates gillnets, while at the same time providing economic incentives and aid to the affected fishermen to find alternative sources of income. What is currently needed is the public support to raise the several million US dollars needed to implement the plan.
by Thomas A. Jefferson, Ph.D., Cetos Research Organization
To learn more about the vaquita and how you can help, please visit: http://www.savethewhales.org/vaquita.html