They are calling her vaquita porpoise or cochito, is popularly known as the “sea pandascientists call it Phocoena sinus and it is the rarest marine mammal in the world. The species is critically endangeredmainly due to the illegal trammel nets used to catch totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), a fish whose crop can fetch exorbitant prices in China for its supposed medicinal properties. The Government of Mexico and the environmental organization Sea Shepherd have joined forces to prevent the vaquita from disappearing forever.
For a few months now, Mexican Navy ships, observation planes and conservation boats have been patrolling the upper part of the Gulf of California in a race against time to save this cetacean from extinction. It will not be easy: in 2015 there were 97 copies left, in 2017 less than 40 and currently it is supposed to be about 10.
However, a recent study published in the journal ‘Science’ by a group of biologists from the University of California has concluded that the species could survive on its own. “If the risk of bycatch mortality caused by fishermen can be eliminated, there is a chance that this species will not go extinct,” the study concludes.
“The vaquita is not doomed by genetic factorssuch as harmful mutations, which often affect many other species whose gene pool has been similarly reduced,” explains one of the study’s authors, Christopher Kyriazis.
The study also shows that the consanguinity, unavoidable due to the small number of vaquita porpoises left in the world, it does not represent such a great risk for the species as previously thought. The study authors noted that the future of the species is in the hands of the human being.
The vaquita marina has even caused a diplomatic conflict between Mexico and the United Statessince the authorities of the latter country had launched severe criticism against those of the former, considering that they were not doing enough to protect the smallest porpoise on the planet, which counts among its defenders the well-known actor Leonardo DiCaprio.
The Mexican Navy reacted to US criticism by stepping up surveillance. The military deployment came after a group of researchers sighted eight specimens of this mammal last fall.whose characteristics include the distinctive black circles around their eyes.
The only habitat for this species is a small area in the Gulf of California. Navy personnel and activists from the conservation group now monitor that area every day, looking for illegal nets and preventing fishermen from approaching what they have dubbed “zero tolerance zone“.
It is the last phase of themiracle operation“, promoted by Sea Shepherd in 2015, with the sole objective of prevent the extinction of this rare animal. Planes from Máximo’s Army patrol daily looking for ships that venture into forbidden waters.
“The efforts that we have seen, specifically in the last three or four months, mean that the vaquita now has the best fighting chance it has had in decades” to save itself from extinction, stresses Sea Shepherd CEO Chuck Lindsey.
The Mexican Navy has already recovered more than 70 illegal nets this yearwhile last year it located and removed 172. Trammel nets form invisible barriers for marine species that can reach several tens of meters in the water and catch not only totoabas (the capture of which is prohibited), but also vaquitas, whales , dolphins, sharks and turtles, reports Sea Shepherd.
The Mexican authorities are now checking that the fishermen in the upper Gulf of California have the necessary paperwork, and later they are checking their nets. Officials also scour beaches for nets washed ashore.
Conservationists have been involved in several violent clashes with fishermen in recent years while working with the Mexican authorities to remove the illegal nets that have been decimating populations of this species for decades, the smallest porpoise on the planetas adults only reach 1.5 meters in length and 50 kilos in weight.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) considers since 1996 that the species is in critically endangered. Also, in 2019, Unesco added the islands and protected areas of the Gulf of California to the list of World Heritage in Danger due to fears of the imminent extinction of the species.
Intervention by Leonardo DiCaprio
Despite this, the international attention on the plight of the vaquita marina only increased after Leonardo Dicaprio In 2017, he asked his millions of followers on social networks to sign a petition addressed to the then president of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, asking him to do more to protect this porpoise.
Subsequently, the actor met with the Mexican leader and obtained his support and that of tycoon Carlos Slim to promote a integral program for the rescue of the marine mammal. Di Caprio returned to the fray last year, when accused the Government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador of abandoning the vaquita.
In the meantime, diplomatic frictions continue: In February, the United States requested consultations with Mexico on efforts to protect the species. It was the first time that a government invoked the environmental provisions of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, in force since July 2020.
Joe Biden’s government could apply sanctions in the form of tariffs to Mexico if it does not observe a satisfactory response to its demands on the protection of the species.
Although there is little information on vaquitas, it is believed that they live about 20 years under ideal conditions. They reach maturity at three years. During this time of year they are in full breeding season. The gestation period is 10 to 11 months and they usually gestate a calf every one or two years. Until they are 8 months old, the young are not able to fend for themselves.
It’s known that they emit ultrasounds to stay in communication with each other. They do not usually approach ships, and their only appearances outside are to climb up and take a slow breath, then quickly disappear again.
Reference report: https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abm1742
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