The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is a rare species of porpoise found only in a small area of the northern Gulf of California. They are the smallest of the porpoises, measuring only 56 inches for the largest specimens. They are also believed to be the most endangered of all marine mammal species. Fewer than 100 of the animals are currently believed to exist in the wild.
Now, the Mexican government has committed to make a last ditch effort to save the tiny porpoise for extinction.
In order to save the species, officials have to overcome two significant obstacles. The first is legal fishing and the potential impact on the livelihood of thousands of families in the region. The second is illegal poaching of another endangered species, the totoaba, which is believed to have medicinal properties in China.
For the next two years, gillnets will be banned in a 5,000 square mile area of the gulf. The vaquitas frequently get tangled in the nets and die before they are found. At the same time the government has committed $72 million to compensating local fishermen for the lost income.
The hope is that by the time the two year ban is over, that better vaquita-safe nets will be available. Fishermen complain that the current “safe” nets are inadequate and do not allow them to earn an income.
The other problem facing officials will be even more difficult to solve. The swim bladder of the endangered totoaba is cooked in soup in China and can bring $10,000 a kilogram on the black market. The trade in totoaba bladders is controlled by organized crime and because it is already illegal there isn’t much the government can do except attempt to step up enforcement.
The Mexican government has announced that its navy will work with fishing officials and environmental groups to help patrol the area in an effort to enforce both the Totoaba fishing ban as well as the temporary ban on gillnets.
Omar Vidal, director of the World Wildlife Fund Mexico sounded cautiously optimistic.
“I really think that this is the last chance, and we had better get our act together. I think the government is very serious,” Vidal told the New York Times, while still pointing out that two decades of efforts to safe the vaquita had slowed the decline in the animals population, but had not halted it.
The website vaquita.tv brings together a number of groups, scientists and activists working to save the species including the World Wildlife Fund, the NOAA, the Ocean Foundation, Earth Ocean and others.
Among the many resources available on the website is a full length documentary on the species and educational materials. For those who want to follow the efforts to bring ‘the desert porpoise’ back from the brink, the site will have regular news updates.