The vaquita porpoise is one of the most rare and endangered porpoises in the world. And it’s disappearing faster than we thought.
According to a report from the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, there are only 97 remaining on the planet. They are found only in the northern gulf of California and are most threatened by gill-net fishing, despite an emergency 2-year ban enacted by the the Mexican government in April.
Data from acoustic monitoring shows that the porpoise population is declining by an average of 31% a year – a number much higher than the previous estimate of 18.5% and also the steepest decline of cetaceans on record.
The population decline corresponds to local reports of an increase in illegal fishing for the totoaba fish, prized in China and used in food. Vaquitas are similar in size to the totoaba and thus get easily caught in nets meant for the fish.
There once was strong law-enforcement in 2008, but efforts have faded to almost nothing until recently. Along with enacting the gill-net fishing ban, the President of Mexico placed the Navy in charge of enforcement. Several arrests have been made and aerial surveys show no gill-net fishing boats in the exclusion zone since the ban went into effect on May 9.
Still, the vaquita recovery committee has pressed the Mexican government to increase surveillance, including nighttime patrols, to ensure a halt to all gill-net fishing. Conservation biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and member of the vaquita recovery committee Barbara Taylor says:
“I was out there about a month ago and saw blatant gill-net setting within the vaquita refuge. Unless there is nearly perfect enforcement, it’s game over for vaquita.”
Fortunately, the Mexican Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources recently launched a comprehensive survey of the vaquita. With the assistance of NOAA Fisheries, the study will provide a baseline count for the population and allow the proper conservation strategies to be implemented.
The survey runs for two months until early December and covers the species’ distribution, an area approximately 100 miles by 50 miles. It has two parts: a visual study from a ship with devices that can spot vaquitas up to five kilometers away and an echolocation study with “acoustic buoys” that can track the animals underwater.
The vaquita’s last survey by ship took place in 2008 and found the population to be 250, a drastic drop from 600 in 1997. Today, scientists know that there are less than 100 of the species, but the data from the study can provide more insight into exactly where and how many vaquitas exist.