Breaking! World Heritage Committee Lists Area In Mexico Where Only 10 Critically Endangered Vaquitas Remain As “In Danger” But Is It Too Late?

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee today approved an “in danger” designation for an area of Mexico that is the last remaining home of the critically endangered vaquita porpoise and the endangered fish called the totoaba. An international team of scientific experts recently concluded that only about 10 vaquitas remained alive in 2018.

The “in danger” designation for Mexico’s Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California World Heritage site came in response to a 2015 petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Animal Welfare Institute. After postponing a decision for several years, the World Heritage Committee decided to list the site. For the area to be removed from the “in danger” list, Mexico must work with UNESCO to develop corrective measures to save the vaquita from extinction. But is it already too late?

“This designation is a crucial step toward saving the last surviving vaquita porpoises from deadly fishing nets,” Alejandro Olivera, the Center’s Mexico representative, who is attending the Committee meeting in Azerbaijan, said in a statement. “The international community just sent a clear message that Mexico must do better, but the decision also opens opportunities for funding a real conservation program to avoid the vaquita’s extinction. The Mexican government will have new incentives and new resources to stop the illegal fishing that’s killing the world’s most endangered marine mammal.”

The main threat vaquita face is that they become entangled in gillnets that are illegally set to capture shrimp and various fish species, especially the endangered totoaba. Totoaba swim bladders are illegally exported by organized criminal syndicates from Mexico to China and other countries, where they are highly valued for their so-called “medicinal properties.”

Illegal fishing is rampant in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California. Between October 2016 to April 2019, wildlife protection organizations, the Mexican government and local fishermen collected nearly 1,200 illegal gillnets from the vaquita’s habitat. The vast majority of these nets, 721, were actively set, not ghost gear.

“The decision by the WHC is an urgent call to action for Mexico to receive assistance, including financial, from governments around the world to prevent the vaquita from becoming another example of human-caused extinction,” said Kate O’Connell, a marine wildlife consultant with the Animal Welfare Institute. “Mexico must act decisively to shut down illegal fishing in vaquita habitat and a global effort led by Mexico, China and the United States, is needed to eradicate the illegal trade in totoaba parts.”

After several years of strong opposition to an “in danger” designation, Mexican officials attending the Committee’s meeting accepted the classification. The 21-member World Heritage Committee recognized that, with so few vaquita remaining and Mexico’s poor track record enforcing its regulations to save the vaquita and totoaba, the designation was necessary.

“Illegal fishing in the northern Gulf of California is pushing the vaquita over the extinction cliff,” said Zak Smith, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Working with the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, the new Mexican administration now has a small window of opportunity to shift course and take the bold actions necessary to save the species over the next six months.”

The decision by the Committee opens the possibility of additional support to save the vaquita. The property can be removed from the List of World Heritage “in danger” if the vaquita is no longer under threat. Conversely, the vaquita’s extinction could cause the World Heritage Committee to consider deleting the property from the World Heritage List. Mexico must avoid that outcome at all cost.

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