Vaquitas last chance before vanishing

Vaquitas are in the brink of extinction. They are the world’s smallest cetacean, and live only in the fertile waters of the Gulf of California. Although their population has always been precarious according to the eight meeting of the International Committee for the Recovery of Vaquitas (CIRVA) there are no more than 30 vaquitas left. Just last year half of the vaquitas recorded disappeared.

Their main threat is bycatch, especially in illegal gillnets for the totoaba fish. The totoaba fish is also endangered but its bladder is considered as a delicacy in China, where wealthy diners pay thousands of dollars for it.

Because of totoaba poachers 90% of the vaquita population has been killed since 2011, according to an acoustic monitoring plan led by Armando Jaramillo Legorreta at the Mexican Ecology and Climate Change Institute (INECC).

But conservation methods in the region aren’t enough to save the vaquita if the Chine market continues. According to a Greenpeace’s investigation there were 13 seafood shops in Honk Kong which sold totoaba bladder in 2015, and most Chinese businessmen bought it for collection.

“At the end of the day, you won’t be able to save the vaquita unless you can stop the market in China,”said Omar Vidal from WWF .

Now researchers are advising the Mexican government to capture several specimens and to hold them in a sea pen as a way of conserving the species, at least until the threat to their environment is removed. Nonetheless, captivity is a measure conservationist had hope they would never have to resort to.

Meanwhile, according to Yale Environment 360 scientists fear the species could vanish by 2018. “The possible extinction of the vaquita is the most important issue facing the marine mammal community right now,” said Barbara Taylor, a conservation biologist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

More so, time is not the vaquitas ally. They take up to six years to reach sexual maturity and they only give birth every other year, unlike other porpoises which calve annually. According to Taylor, it could take 40 years to recover the vaquitas that have died in the last 5 years alone. Also, she considers captive breeding to be too risky as there’s the possibility of harming the few remaining ones during capture and transport.

“We’re on this roller coaster that’s typical for endangered species. We take several progressive steps, and then we crash again.”

As Yale Environment 360 reports, she refers to the ultimate crash in 2006 when she witnessed the disappearance of the Yangtze River’s baiji dolphin in China, which used to be the most endangered marine mammal. Researchers believe the baiji to be extinct, the first human-caused cetacean extinction.  

Nonetheless, Taylor believes the vaquitas recovery may be more manageable as the Gulf of California offers a pristine habitat, with fewer pollution and less boat traffic. There the campaign against the bycatch is what’s more important.

“If we can’t save vaquitas here, where there’s only one threat, what can we save?” she concludes.


LatinAmerican Post | Maria Andrea Marquez

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