Recent reports indicating the probable extinction of China's Yangtze River dolphin, the baiji, have prompted scientists and conservationists to save Mexico's vaquita porpoise from the same fate. At best, it tops the list of the worlds most threatened marine mammals. At worst, the tiny porpoise could disappear forever.
IUCN Reviewing Status of All Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises
Both possibilities are alarming enough to set the World Conservation Union (IUCN) into action. In late January, the IUCN initiated a review to determine whether the vaquitas (Phocoena sinus) status should remain as Critically Endangered. Its an ambitious undertaking; the mammals notoriously shy nature makes it hard to spot, let alone study. Additionally, the IUCN is re-evaluating the conservation status of all cetaceans whales, dolphins, and porpoises.
Cetacean experts estimate no more than 500 vaquita are alive today, and dozens are lost each year. Shrimping trawlers damage the vaquitas only home in the Upper Gulf of California, and gill nets used for catching shrimp and fish inadvertently trap and drown the porpoise as it swims to the surface to breathe. This destructive fishing affects a number of other marine species not specifically targeted by fishermen "bycatch" that, once snared, are simply thrown back into the water, dead or dying.
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The vaquitas decline also can be traced to activities outside of Mexico that have dramatically altered the marine region. Freshwater flowing from the Colorado River once produced spectacular wetlands around the rivers natural mouth in the Gulf of California. In the past 50 years, however, the United States has built more than 20 dams along the river. Today hardly a drop of its water reaches the sea. This has been detrimental to nearly 1,000 local fish and marine mammal species, as well as human communities that depend on agriculture for livelihood.
Forming Alliances to Save the Vaquita
In an attempt to save the vaquita from the baijis (Lipotes vexillifer) misfortune, the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), a broad coalition of nonprofit organizations and the U.S. government, has presented a comprehensive recovery plan to the Mexican government.
Recommendations include eliminating or finding alternatives to gill nets and buying out the fishing rights of trawlers. The plan also encourages stronger enforcement of existing fishing and trawling laws. Because the fishing industry is the primary provider of jobs and income for the gulfs residents, CIRVA is closely engaging local communities and government authorities.
Working with the government of Mexico, we hope to help fishermen find replacements for destructive gill nets and new sources of income, and will support their transition into more sustainable activities, says Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, executive director of CIs Mexico and Mesoamerica Center for Biodiversity Conservation.
CIRVA's efforts are yielding effective results. Last year, the Mexican government established a 500 square mile refuge and protection program that prohibits activities harmful to the vaquita. The refuge includes most of the mammals core habitat, parts of which were left outside the boundaries of the 1993 Upper Gulf of California Biosphere Reserve. CI and partners were instrumental in the reserves creation Mexico's first official marine protected area.
READ MORE: Around the World: Protecting Marine Areas.