The Vaquita Expedition 2015. There is still hope for the most endangered cetacean

The vaquita is the most endangered cetacean species in the world. A scientific expedition will estimate how many of them remain in the Gulf of California.

The vaquita, little cow in Spanish, is also known as the desert porpoise: it is the smallest cetacean on Earth and was discovered as recently as the 1950s. Its distribution is restricted to a small region in the Upper Gulf of California in Mexico. In recent years the species has undergone a rapid decline that brought its abundance to drop below 100 animals in 2014. The cause behind such a catastrophic downfall is by-catch, which is accidental entanglement in fishing nets. It is estimated that between forty to eighty individuals have been drowning every year in artisanal and commercial gillnets, walls of netting that trap fish by their gills, and trawl nets used to catch fish and shrimp.

 

surfacing vaquita
Surfacing vaquita © Paula Olson/Wikimedia

 

The Vaquita Expedition 2015, which ran from September to early December, is a scientific survey aimed at finding out how many vaquitas remain at the start of the Mexican government’s emergency ban on gillnet fishing. Similarly to previous surveys in 1997 and 2008, this year’s expedition is the result of a tight collaboration between Mexico and the United States, and brings together several world leading experts on porpoises. Scientists on board the research vessel were relieved to report that 25 animals were spotted over the first weeks of the survey.

 

The dramatic state of the vaquita population was recognised over two decades ago. Together with the International Whaling Commission, the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita has repeatedly called for the immediate removal of all gillnets from the species’ range. Despite some efforts to address such recommendations, actions have failed to revert the decline due to lack of effective enforcement.

It was only in April 2015 that the Mexican government announced an emergency two-year ban of any gillnet fishing in the region in an unprecedented attempt to save the species from extinction. The ban was paired with a compensation package for fishermen, as well as a strict enforcement plan working closely with local communities.

 

The reported sightings of the Vaquita Expedition 2015 give hope that this iconic species still inhabits our oceans. However, we will have to wait for the definitive results of the survey, expected in spring 2016, to understand how much time is left to prevent the vaquita from becoming the second cetacean species that we lose after the baiji, a dolphin that inhabited the Yangtze River in China that was declared extinct due to human causes in 2006.

 

Cover image: a vaquita © Greenpeace
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