The Last-Ditch Effort To Save the World's Smallest Whale

Poster explaining the temporary gillnet ban | Image: Mexican Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources

The world’s most endangered whale is slipping closer and closer to extinction, prompting the International Whaling Commission to call for a permanent ban on gillnet fishing in its habitat in a last-ditch effort to save it.

The vaquita, Phocoena sinus, a four and a half-foot long porpoise found only in the northern Gulf of California, is down to fewer than 59 individuals after three were found drowned in fishing nets in March. The diminutive cetaceans are most threatened by illegal fishing for the totoaba, an endangered fish whose swim bladders are highly prized by some Chinese medicine practitioners. Fishing for totoabas has been banned iun Mexican waters since 1975. Demand for the swim bladders has spurred a persistent illegal gillnet fishery in vaquita habitat.

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In April 2015, the Mexican government enacted a two-year ban on gillnet fishing in an exclusion zone that roughly corresponds with the vaquita’s range. Effective enforcement of the ban is difficult due to both funding and staff shortages, and the sky-high prices totoaba swim bladders can fetch: up to $8,500 per kilogram, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association.

Map of vaquita habitat and the exclusion zone | Map: NOAA

Gillnets are also used in the Gulf’s legal fisheries for shrimp, sharks, and other species. Mexico has been working to provide fisheries workers with gear that’s less dangerous to vaquitas, and has stepped up attempts to enforce the ban using Navy ships and photographic drones.

At the 66th International Whaling Commission meeting held October 24-28 in Slovenia (IWC-66), the United States proposed a draft resolution calling for making permanent Mexico’s two-year ban on gillnetting in the fishing exclusion zone, and asking member countries to provide Mexico with financial and technical assistance for both enforcement and alternative fishing methods for the Gulf’s legal fisheries. Mexico’s representatives at IWC-66 enthusiastically endorsed the proposal.

The IWC is a bit under the gun, as the vaquita slips closer and closer to extinction. If we lose the vaquita, it will be the second cetacean to go extinct in the last decade. China’s baiji, a freshwater dolphin that lived only in the Yangtse River, was declared “functionally extinct” after a 2006 expedition failed to find a single individual.

Having another cetacean go extinct on the IWC’s watch would be a black mark on the Commission’s record, even though several of its member countries disagree that the IWC should concern itself with smaller cetaceans such as the vaquita.

Given that concern that losing the vaquita would reflect poorly on the Commission, countries opposed to IWC involvement with small cetaceans — Japan and the Russian Federation among them — agreed not to block approval of the resolution, which was approved by the full IWC on October 26.

"The situation of the vaquita is now in its critical phase," Justin Cooke of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) told IWC-66 delegates.  "The numbers have further declined from about 100 animals when we discussed it in this room two years ago, to less than 60 now… In two years' time, it will be already too late to save the species."

Banner: Swimming vaquita. Photo: NOAA

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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