Six of the nearly extinct marine mammals were spotted on a research expedition.
BAJA CALIFORNIA, Mexico — It was a hopeful day on the water when a group of scientists possibly spotted and observed at least six vaquitas while on a research expedition on the upper Gulf of California, it was recently announced at a press conference in Mexico City.
Scientists and researchers monitoring the vaquita population, which is on the verge of extinction, witnessed a mother and calf break the surface of the water. The observation, which was initially reported by the New York Times, was followed by the possible spotting of four more vaquita. The New York Times report was quick to note the observations were made from a distance.
Experts did not provide updated numbers of the endangered species, so it’s impossible to determine whether the vaquita spotting, which took place during the final days of September, is a positive sign. Results, according to those who spoke at the Mexico City press conference on Oct. 17, are still being analyzed. The existence of calves, however, could be a good sign, according to the New York Times. Calving increases a species’ growth rate and gives vaquitas increased hope of survival, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) biologist was quoted as saying in the Times article.
Spotting six vaquita – including two calves – could still be a significant event, however. The last “official” count of vaquita was conducted two years ago. Experts estimated there were no more than 30 vaquitas remaining in existence. Some estimates since then have pegged the marine mammal species’ population at 12.
The Center for Biological Diversity, meanwhile, said a few rumors had spread of the vaquita officially reaching extinction.
“Mexican fishermen groups were reporting – inaccurately – that the vaquita is extinct, in a bid to lift current fisheries measures in vaquita habitat,” Sarah Uehlmann, a program director with the Center for Biological Diversity, told The Log in an email.
The center’s Mexico representative said North America’s second-most populous nation must implement a full ban on gillnets in the Gulf of California if vaquitas are to have any chance of avoiding extinction, which could come as early as 2021 – less than three years from now.
“It’s a relief to have scientists confirm the vaquita’s continued existence, but these little porpoises are hanging on by a thread,” Alex Olivera, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Mexico representative said in a released statement. “They won’t last much longer unless the Mexican government bans all gillnets in vaquita habitat and fully enforces that protection. Mexico should not throw away this last chance to save these amazing animals.”
The U.S. Court of International Trade banned all imports of gillnet-caught seafood from the upper Gulf of California region, which is home to the vaquita habitat. Researchers say entanglement within these gillnets serves as the only threat to the vaquita species. Some have argued, however, the court order does not target those actually engaging in illegal fishing.
Gillnets are used to catch totoabas, which also roam the Gulf of California. Totoaba swim bladders are both endangered and considered a delicacy. The species yields a high price on the black market, therefore fostering a cottage industry of commercial fishermen hoping to cash in, opening the door for the vaquita population to be harmed along the way.
Several media outlets have reported on the relationship between the totoaba black market – which, apparently, has mafia connections – and the dramatic decrease of the vaquita population. Often lost in the media coverage are the stories of local fisherman in Baja California who are dependent upon commercial fisheries for income.
The U.S. Court of International Trade, in a separate matter, denied the White House’s request to lift a ban on seafood imports from Mexico. The ban specifically applied to seafood caught in gillnets used in the Gulf of California region, where the vaquita habitat is found.
Photo: NOAA Fisheries