The vaquita porpoise, the world’s smallest marine mammal, is on the brink of extinction. Scientists estimate that just 10 or fewer vaquitas are left despite international conservation efforts. Found only in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California, the vaquita is the most endangered marine mammal on the planet.
According to the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, the number one threat facing vaquitas is gillnets. The porpoises get trapped in these nets and drown. Gillnets are often used illegally in the region to catch shrimp and fish, including the critically-endangered totoaba. The totoaba’s swim bladder is considered a delicacy in Asia and can fetch thousands of dollars. Despite Mexico banning both totoaba fishing and the use of gillnets in the vaquitas’ habitat, many say the bans are not always enforced.
But there is a reason to be hopeful. According to a genetic analysis led by researchers at UCLA, the critically-endangered species actually remains relatively healthy and can potentially survive if illegal fishing practices cease immediately.
In the study, which was recently published in the journal Science, the research team analyzed the genomes of 20 vaquitas between 1985 and 2017 and ran simulations to predict the species’ extinction risk over the next 50 years. The researchers concluded that if gillnet fishing ends immediately, the vaquita has a very high chance of recovery. If the practice continues, however, even moderately, the likelihood of a recovery plummets.
According to the research team, the surviving vaquitas are actively reproducing and seem healthy. But poachers’ gillnets will continue to pose an existential threat to the species until more measures are taken to protect the vaquita.
Photo, posted October 18, 2008, courtesy of Paul Olson / NOAA via Flickr.