The Critically Endangered Vaquita Porpoise Is On The Brink Of Extinction With Only 10 Remaining In The Wild

Illustration by Frédérique Lucas

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee decided this week to maintain the “in danger” status for the habitat of the critically endangered vaquita porpoise and totoaba fish. Only 10 vaquitas remain in the world — all in a small area in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico. The committee urged the Mexican government to immediately adopt corrective measures to save the critically endangered porpoise from extinction.

In 2019, the World Heritage Committee designated Mexico’s islands and protected areas, including the Gulf of California’s World Heritage site, as “in danger.” The listing was in response to a 2015 petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Animal Welfare Institute.

Vaquita inhabit a relatively small area in the Upper Gulf of California. Although gillnet fishing is banned in the vaquita’s primary habitat, known as the “zero tolerance area” (ZTA), as well as in an area that encompasses the vaquita’s historic range, the law is not adequately enforced.

“I’m grateful the World Heritage Committee is holding Mexico accountable, but it’s sobering that the country has again failed to meet its international commitments to eliminate threats to the few remaining vaquita,” said Alejandro Olivera, senior scientist and Mexico representative at the Center for Biological Diversity, who is attending the committee meeting in Riyadh. “Despite a 2020 ban, deadly shrimp gillnets are still being used in vaquita habitat, and the next shrimp season is set to begin this month. Mexico must act immediately to expand the protected area for the vaquita and finally enforce existing regulations during the upcoming shrimp fishing season.”

Vaquita face a single overwhelming threat: entanglement in gillnets illegally set to capture shrimp and various fish species, especially totoaba. Totoaba swim bladders are smuggled by organized criminal syndicates from Mexico, primarily to China, where they are highly prized for their supposed medicinal benefits. Despite reported declines in illegal fishing within the ZTA, illegal fishing outside the area was still widespread during the most recent December-to-May totoaba fishing season.

The World Heritage Committee reviewed Mexico’s recent enforcement actions, including illegal fishing data, and found them to be “not fully effective.” For the “in danger” designation to be lifted, Mexico must work with UNESCO and the International Union for Conservation of Nature on several objectives:

1. Strengthen law enforcement efficiency

2. Increase penalties for illegal totoaba trade

3. Eliminate illegal fishing gear

4. Implement a permanent ban on gillnets

5. Cooperate with other nations to stop the illegal trade of totoaba swim bladders

6. Promote sustainable fisheries using environmentally-friendly fishing gear

The committee also directed Mexico to consult with key stakeholders and submit a detailed plan of action, including timelines. Failure to adopt these measures could result in the site losing its World Heritage status.

“While we applaud the World Heritage Committee’s clear directive to Mexico today to protect this unique and important world heritage site, we are concerned that these corrective measures lack any sense of urgency,” said DJ Schubert, a wildlife biologist with the Animal Welfare Institute. “We fear that Mexico will continue to avoid fully implementing and enforcing its own laws while the vaquita hover on the very precipice of extinction.”

“It is sadly true, the vaquita is teetering on the edge of extinction, facing total annihilation due to greed and indifference. I would have appreciated seeing this level of attention on the vaquita from the international community years ago, when it was evident that it was facing extinction,” Andrea Crosta, Founder of Earth League International (ELI), told WAN. “However, very few organizations cared, and even fewer were actively involved in efforts to address the issue. ELI is still working in the field to ensure that all the international traffickers responsible for this tragedy will be apprehended. We owe it to the vaquita.”

You can help all animals and our planet by choosing compassion on your plate and in your glass. #GoVeg

More on this topic

Popular stories

World Animal News TOP Stories Happening Now

Here is World Animal News’ Top 10 Stories Happening Now: 1. Colorado Parks & Wildlife Confirms First Gray Wolf Pack Sighting In The State Since...

Malaysian Customs Seize Massive Shipment Of Illegal Elephant Ivory, Rhino Horns, Pangolin Scales & Tiger Fangs

Photos from Traffic and the Royal Malaysian Customs Department (JKDM), Facebook  On July 10th, a shipment containing a hidden collection of smuggled wildlife parts worth an...

New Bill To Protect Great White Sharks Off The Coast Of California Signed Into Law; Bill Goes Into Effect On January 1, 2023

While great white sharks are already a protected species and an important part of the ocean ecosystem in California, Governor Gavin Newsom recently signed...