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The vanishing vaquita!

Things are not looking good for one of the smallest and most endangered dolphins. With less than 100 individuals thought to remain, a new report from the international vaquita recovery team (CIRVA) strongly recommends that the Government of Mexico enact emergency regulations establishing a gillnet exclusion zone covering the full range of the vaquita. If not, this little “sea cow” may soon follow in the unenviable footsteps of the baiji and become the second species of dolphin to become extinct as a result of human interference.

The vaquita is found in the northern end of the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez), with a core area of approx. 2,235 km². Living in shallow water along the shoreline, often in shallow lagoons, they share their habitat with local fishermen. The major threat to the vaquita is entanglement in fishing nets, specifically gillnets historically used to catch shrimp. 

Since their plight was recognised, the Mexican Government has been pursuing a conservation plan for the species and ploughing substantial funds into trying to ensure the recovery of this elusive little dolphin. They’ve protected their habitat, banned gill-nets and have been actively encouraging fishermen to change to a more selective fishing gear that does not threaten the vaquita. These measures however have only slowed the decline, not stopped it. The reason for this? A new and illegal fishery has emerged and it is inadvertently decimating the remaining vaquita population. Several years ago it was thought that less than 200 vaquita remained however in the past three years alone, half of the vaquita population has been killed and it is believed that less than 100 remain, of which only 25 are mature females capable of reproducing.

This new, illegal fishery is of great concern, not only for the vaquita but for the targeted fish which itself is endangered. The totoaba, a giant fish that can reach 2 m in length and 100 kg in weight is prized for its swim bladder, not its meat which is left to rot on the beach. Over the past few years, thousands of swim bladders have been dried and then smuggled out of Mexico (often through the United States), destined for China where they are used as an ingredient in soup and believed to have medicinal value. The totoaba swim bladder is a valuable commodity, providing fishermen with the equivalent of half a year’s income from legal fishing activities.

The report calls for emergency action by both the Mexican and US Governments. If nothing is done, and the decline is not immediately halted, this little dolphin about which relatively little is known, will soon be consigned to the history books.