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Vaquita: The Next Big  Extinction?

The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is a member of the porpoise family and are native only to the Upper Gulf of California. There numbers have significantly decreased over the past 2 decades, making them the most endangered cetacean in the world...

Vaquita are a small grey porpoise with distinct darker facial markings around the eyes and mouth. The name “vaquita” translates to little cow in Spanish, an apt name as they are the smallest cetacean measuring only 1.3m in length.

Flickr | NASA's Earth ObservatoryThey have been on the IUCN Red List as Critically Endangered since 2008, but were classified as Endangered as early as 1990. A 1997 assessment estimated a population of around 567 individuals, with an annual mortality rate of 39-85 individuals. The majority of annual losses were a direct result of gillnet fishing in the Gulf, with vaquita being caught up as bycatch. On average vaquita also only give birth once every 2 years, not giving adequate time for the population to recover from these threats, making them the most endangered cetacean in the world.

The current population is less than 30 individuals, a 95% reduction since 1997, and is entirely localised in the northernmost parts of the Gulf of California. The Upper Gulf of California Biosphere Reserve was established in 1993; a landmark decision in vaquita conservation made by the Mexican government but, while protecting the Gulf habitat is vital in protecting the vaquita, more needs to be done to tackle current anthropological threats in order to save the species.

Gillnet fishing, a method used to fish for sharks, mackerel and to illegally catch totoaba, is ongoing in the region and continues to severely threaten the remaining vaquita. There is pressure on President of Mexico Pena Nieto to impose a permanent ban on gillnet fishing as it would ensure the survival of both the remaining vaquita population and protect the also Critically Endangered totoaba.  

Flickr | NOAA Fisheries West CoastThere have been proposals to take several vaquita from the Gulf for captive breeding, however porpoises are among the hardest to successfully breed in captivity, and given their pivotal role in the ecosystem their removal could disrupt the ecology of the Gulf.   

The concentration and low number of the population could have other devastating repercussions; a lowering in genetic diversity results in an increase in recessive genes passed down, making subsequent generations weaker than the last. Meaning that by removing some from the wild with the intentions of conservation could adversely effect the recovery of the wild population in the future.

These porpoises are literally on the brink of extinction, their fragile situation means they could be gone within a decade. Every opportunity to protect the remaining wild population must be taken, starting with a total ban on destructive gillnet fishing.

By Thomas Phillips - Online Journalism Intern

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