Scientists say less than one-dozen of the marine mammal remains in Baja California’s Sea of Cortez. Is it too late to save the species?
STATEWIDE—And then there were only 10. No need to apply within for job openings of doomsday spokesperson, as the vaquita porpoise might be fully extinct before the end of this decade – which, by the way, is less than eight months away.
The Log, in our coverage of the marine mammal in 2017 and 2018, reported there were 30 or fewer vaquitas remaining in the world. Alarm bells are ringing louder as an international committee of scientists recently reported the vaquita population dropped from 30ish … to about 10. Animal Welfare Institute actually reported a range of remaining vaquita, stating, in a March 14 statement, there are between six and 22 of the marine mammal species still alive. Efforts to raise awareness of – and save – the vaquita, which calls the upper shores of Baja California’s Sea of Cortez home, are, accordingly, failing.
Now it is still possible for the vaquita to make a miraculous comeback, joining the ranks of the southern sea otter, humpback whale and green sea turtle as species triumphantly rebounding from endangerment or extinction.
The vaquita’s culprit: drift gillnets placed along the floor of the Sea of Cortez by commercial fisheries. Those fisheries have actually been targeting valuable totoaba, which sell for quite a bit of coin in the Chinese black market. Vaquitas, unfortunately, consistently get caught in these gillnets, rarely surviving (if ever). Attempts to monitor commercial fishery activity in the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California) and implementations of seafood bans from those who use gillnets in waters off the Baja coast were geared toward stifling illegal fishing activities in Northwest Mexico. Local governments in the vaquita habitat region even offered commercial fishermen incentives to not engage in illegal fishing activities. Enforcement measures were implemented to eradicate as many gillnets as possible in the Sea of Cortez – though such efforts do not appear to be working fast enough.
So what more can be done to save the handful of vaquita still remaining – and use the current population to rebuild the marine mammal’s population to something sustainable? We have, after all, seen other species recover from endangered species status. In fact six species in California alone were taking of the endangered species list in 2013, including the southern sea otter, humpback whale and green sea turtle mentioned above.
Seafood bans, incentives for commercial fishers and environmental groups monitoring for illegal fishing activity have yet to reverse the trend of disappearing vaquitas. There was also an effort to capture a few remaining vaquita and rebuild the species in captivity – yet that plan ended almost as quickly as it started when one of the marine mammals had died while held captive.
Several aquariums, meanwhile, launched a postcard campaign to implore the Mexican president to be more proactive in protecting vaquita from gillnets and illegal fishing activities. The postcards were delivered to the Mexican president a few months ago, but it’s unclear whether the campaign translated into action.
What if the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, stepped in and required the governments of Mexico and the United States to step up and do more to rid the Sea of Cortez of gillnets? UNESCO, for those who don’t recall, postponed a decision to declare the vaquita species as “in-danger.” The international organization has not appeared to do anything since deciding to postpone the in-danger classification in July 2018. UNESCO officials held off on declaring the marine mammal as in-danger of being extinct because they wanted to see whether policies already in place would save the vaquita from disappearing.
Several vaquitas have since died, according to the most recent estimates – perhaps the policies currently in place weren’t/aren’t quite as effective as UNESCO officials had hoped. Perhaps UNESCO needs to revisit its deliberation on the vaquita’s near extinction.