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The World's Most Endangered Marine Mammal Might Have Just Got a Lifeline

New agreements show increased attention to the plight of the vaquita, but environmental organisations warn that the effort needs to be international.

by Victoria Turk
Oct 15 2015, 9:00am

Image: Paula Olson, NOAA/Wikimedia

This month, US researchers working in Mexico's Baja California were lucky enough to catch a very rare sight: two live vaquitas, the most endangered marine mammal in the world.

New conservation commitments from Mexican authorities will hopefully contribute to making vaquita sightings a more common occurrence. Agreements made in a recent session of a group led by Secretary of Environment Rafael Pacchiano aim to help ward off what was starting to look like the imminent extinction of the tiny porpoise.

The vaquita, which is endemic to that area of the Gulf of California, is incredibly hard to spot because, thanks to its propensity to get caught in now-banned "gillnets" used to catch other fish, there are estimated to be fewer than 100 left. The main cause of the decline in vaquita is the black market for the swim bladder of the endangered totoaba fish, which is illegally fished using nets that can also snag the vaquita, causing it to drown.

The new agreements in Mexico include greater coordination with NGOs working in the area to help conserve the vaquita, an increased number of inspectors to monitor the situation, and a commitment to explore temporary employment options in the tourism industry for local fishermen who have lost their livelihood to the ban on fishing.

Image: Paula Olson, NOAA/Wikimedia

Silvia Diaz Pérez, Greenpeace Mexico's oceans programme leader, said it was a positive step. "If those agreements are properly commenced, it's going to be really good, because mainly the focus of the new agreements are to tackle the totoaba illegal trade and illegal fishing," she said.

She provided Motherboard with a more comprehensive English-language version of the agreements, which include specific commitments to "identify the presence of foreign buyers" of totoaba swim bladder and to work with US customs to cut down on totoaba trafficking from Mexico to the US. From there, totoaba swim bladders are then usually trafficked over to China and Hong Kong to be sold as a delicacy on the black market.

Diaz particularly welcomed the promise of more inspectors, which her team has been asking for since meeting earlier with the coordinator of the environmental police. "He told us they only had two inspectors to patrol all this area," she said.

There are no fixed figures regarding the uptick in police presence included in the agreements. "We're going to push for it being at least 20," said Diaz.

"With the best will in the world, you cannot monitor every square metre of the ocean."

Clare Perry, who leads the Environmental Investigation Agency's oceans campaign, approved of the renewed attention to the plight of the vaquita. "The last scientific census was so alarming that certainly we've seen some real commitment from the Mexican government to try to address enforcement in particular," she said.

But she reiterated the international nature of the vaquita's conservation and the need to address the consumer demand for totoaba swim bladder. "With the best will in the world, you cannot monitor every square metre of the ocean and every single boat on every single hour," she said. "So it's really important that we tackle the consumer demand for totoaba at the same time."

Perry emphasised the need for research into the totoaba market, which is largely in Chinese communities. "You're not going to stop the trade until you actually understand how it's happening and get the people behind the trade, not just the guys doing the fishing or doing the smuggling," she said.

Meanwhile, Diaz stressed the need for Mexico to make good on its word, and soon. "We need these measures to be implemented as soon as possible if we want to save the vaquita," she said.