Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Endangered Vaquita: A Cautionary Tale

Although the endangered nature of numerous fish species often take front and center in the news, they are not the only aquatic creatures which are in peril. Consider the vaquita (Spanish for "little cow"), a rare species of porpoise, which is in dire danger of becoming extinct. Immediate action is necessary to protect this unique, aquatic mammal and I bet most people have never even heard of the vaquita.

Vaquita are the smallest of all porpoises, and are also known as Gulf of California porpoise, Desert porpoise and cochito. It wasn't until 1958, when a few of their skulls were found, that their existence was determined, and it wouldn't be until 1985 that live vaquita were actually seen. Their face is distinctive, as they have a black ring around each eye and a stripe from chin to flipper.

The vaquita only lives in the northern waters of the Gulf of California, and it is thought that less than 100 currently exist. Let me repeat that: LESS THAN 100! The U.S. lists the vaquita as endangered under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. The Marine Mammal Protection Act, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and the Convention on International Trade in the Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora also list the vaquita as in danger of extinction. In July 2014, the fifth meeting of the Comite Internacional para la Recuperacio n de la Vaquita (CIRVA) was held, and their report noted the dire situation of the vaquita.

The CIRVA report stated that back in 2012, there were about 200 vaquita but that number has been cut in half in only two years! Unless something drastic is done immediately, they could be extinct by 2018, only four years from now. CIRVA's primary recommendation is for Mexico to immediately establish a gillnet exclusion zone which covers the entire range of the vaquita, expanding the size of the current refuge. Part of the problem has been illegal fishing, especially for another endangered species, the totoaba.

Totoaba are being illegally caught because their swim bladder is used in traditional Chinese medicine and garners high prices, several thousand dollars per kilogram. As far back as 1997, it was identified that gillnet bycatch was the greatest threat to vaquitas, and much of that bycatch was through the pursuit of the totoaba, though fishing for other species, such as shrimp, is also responsible. So, prohibiting all gill nets is an absolute requirement to protecting the vaquita.

Obviously, Mexico has the greatest opportunity to stop gillnet use and stop illegal fishing, and they must act with all haste. In recent years, Mexico has been proactive in helping to protect the vaquitas, but they must do more. Hopefully the new CIRVA report will lead to new action by Mexico.

The plight of the vaquita is a cautionary tale that everyone should consider as bycatch is an issue all across the world. A few years ago, I wrote about NOAA's first National Bycatch Report, noting that in the Northeast region, almost 1300 sea mammals had been caught as bycatch. This was the highest amount of any region, and indicative of a problem that needed to be solved. Bycatch does not involve just sea mammals, but also includes various species of fish, and brings its own problem as well, though those issues are outside the scope of this article.

Let us hope the vaquita will be saved!

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