Will 2017 Be the Year We Lose the World’s Smallest Porpoise?

Only 60 of these endangered porpoises remain, and scientists are making last-ditch efforts to save the imperiled species.
December 17, 2016, 4:16pm
Image: YouTube/Chris Johnson

This year's events have felt gratuitously tragic, and many are looking to 2017 for some redemptive qualities. For the vaquita, however—the world's smallest and most endangered porpoise—next year could very well be its last on Earth. As a result, wildlife officials are making a last-ditch effort to save the imperiled species.

Just five feet long, the tiny vaquita, or Phocoena sinus, has been toeing the edge of extinction for quite a while now. Illegal fishing operations in Mexico's Gulf of California, the vaquita's only habitat, have littered the seascape with gillnets that trap and drown the cetaceans. Scientists estimate its population numbers have declined more than 92 percent since 1997. Last year, only 60 individuals remained, with fewer than 25 of them being breeding females.

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But the vaquita's plight hasn't been without tremendous effort from conservationists and the Mexican government. In 2015, Mexico's president, Enrique Peña Nieto, declared an emergency ban on gillnets for a period of two years. Authorities also offered to compensate fishermen whose livelihoods depend on the trade that's killing vaquitas to the tune of $37 million per year.

Because of its diminutive size and charismatic features (the vaquita's round eye-markings earned it the name, the "panda of the sea"), activists have eagerly rallied for its survival. And like the giant panda, the vaquita's face has become an icon for a movement that appeals to humans' sympathy, perhaps more than anything else.

Still, despite an influx of donation dollars to save the vaquita, and genuine efforts from the Mexican government to protect it, the species is disappearing. "The navy is carrying out heroic efforts [to curb the use of illegal gillnets], but the fishermen have used every trick in the book," Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, chairman of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, told ABC News this week.

Image: YouTube/Chris Johnson

According to officials, Chinese demand for a fish called the totoaba, which is prized for its swim bladder in black markets, has caused the most collateral damage to the vaquita. Between October and December of this year, more than 100 abandoned "ghost" nets were found in a 7,340-mile area of the Gulf of California.

Now, conservation experts want to trap and pen the remaining vaquitas as a final protective measure. This method would theoretically allow the species to swim freely, but without the threat of entanglement. However, the actual process of capturing the animals could prove to be too risky. Rojas-Bracho worries that if any breeding females perish, this could extinguish the species.

"Locating them, capturing them, there is an inherent risk to everything. We have to do something, as an emergency measure," he said. "The team is the best that can be put together in the world. It is the 'dream team.'"

Like many other battles against extinction, the larger fight will ultimately come down to safeguarding habitats from destructive human activities. Climate change, overfishing, and pollution are some of the biggest threats to marine ecosystems.

"The species is at risk, but so is the whole ecosystem," Rojas-Bracho added.

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