A half dozen, critically endangered vaquitas were sighted in the Gulf of California in September renewing calls for the Mexican government to do more. The vaquita sighting was both good and bad news for the fate of the beleaguered porpoises.

vaquita el pais kendangered vaquita sighting sea of cortez

One of the vaquitas sighted was identified as Ana, a mother that was with her second calf in two years. Unusual because vaquitas normally have only one calf every two years. (photo – El Pais)

“This means the rate of recovery could be double” what was previously thought, said Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, the leader of an international team working to save the vaquitas, adding “If we stop killing them, they will recover.”

 

Fewer Vaquitas in a Much Smaller Area

The porpoises’ numbers and presence have been monitored acoustically using instruments listening for their distinctive “click’s. This monitoring revealed that the remaining vaquitas no longer inhabit about 86% of what was considered their historic range in the Gulf of California.

“Nowadays we hear very, very few vaquitas,” said Armando Jaramillo who oversees the monitoring program. The recent “clicks” have been detected at only four of the 46 monitors once used. It also indicates that only about 15 vaquitas remain, down from 30 individuals seen in the previous year.

The fewer numbers are heartbreaking but may perversely offer some hope. With fewer numbers found in a much smaller, roughly 12 by 25mile area, the porpoises might be easier to protect.

dead vaquita in gil net Latin American Post

The vaquita population has been decimated as bycatch in illegal gil nets used to catch fish called totoaba. The bladders of the also endangered totoaba are sold, at great profit, on the international black market. Once dried, the bladders are used as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.  (photo – Latin American Post)

“Now we have a zone that is relatively smaller and easier to protect,” Jaramillo said. The news of the vaquita sighting resulted in a rush of new proposals on how to save them.. One suggestion is to permanently station a navy ship in this last refuge of the vaquita.

Another idea floated by Diego Ruiz of the Museo de la Ballena, proposes placing a floating barrier around the refuge that would prohibit fishing boats from entering.

 

Vaquita Versus Fishermen

Unfortunately, these actions require additional funding and support from the Mexican government. The incoming, administration of populist, president Andres Maunuel Lopez has promised to increase employment opportunities in rural areas. This promise might run counter to the previous government’s efforts to ban local fishermen from using gil nets.

“If we don’t stop illegal fishing, they could become extinct in a year, or the year after,” Jaramillo said.

Possibly with a much reduced vaquita “refuge.” Allowing increased fishing and also protecting the world’s most endangered marine mammal may not necessarily be incompatible.

 

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