Commonly referred to as the ‘panda of the sea’ due of its distinctive markings, the vaquita is endemic to the Upper Gulf of California. Various parts of the gulf are listed as UNESCO World Heritage Sites due to the presence of biologically unique ecosystems, including ecologically and economically significant marine populations, such as the Vaquita. Yet despite the recognition of their habitat, things aren’t looking good for them. With roughly 30 individuals left, they are now the world’s most endangered marine mammal – on the verge of extinction.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) have made a plea for a coordinated global effort to help preserve the remaining vaquita. The WWF refers to Jorge Rickards, acting CEO of WWF-Mexico, who says, “having discovered the vaquita less than sixty years ago, we humans have now brought it to the brink of extinction. Their incredibly low numbers are a stark reminder of how our efforts to protect this incredible species and its habitat are falling short. Unless we act decisively today, we could lose the vaquita forever.”

Vaquita in the wild © Paula Olson / WWF

The WWF identify gillnets as the biggest threat to the species. Gillnets, which are widely used throughout the world, are vertical panels of netting designed such that the fish gets caught by the gills. They are very effective, and while there is a difference in size selectivity, they are known for a high degree of by-catch (picking up unintended fish or marine mammals). The WWF also notes that these gillnets, which inadvertently catch the vaquita, are being used to fish another critically endangered species – the totoaba fish. The totoaba’s swim bladder is a delicacy in Asia, and they are illegally trafficked from Mexico to China via the United States. The WWF calls for a crackdown on the illegal totoaba fisheries.

The Mexican government implemented a temporary two-year ban on gillnets, but it is due to expire this month. Regardless, according to the WWF, the ban was ineffective anyway. It was unable to be properly enforced, and resulted in what they describe as “unabated illegal gillnet fishing, causing vaquita populations to decline by 90 per cent between 2011 and 2016.”

The WWF is actively calling for the government to enact an immediate and permanent ban on gillnets, and to remove all “ghosts nets” (nets that have been left or lost in the ocean) in order to prevent the marine mammals from getting entangled in the them and subsequently drowning. For this ban to be effective, the analysis notes that the government must support local fishing communities by providing them with alternative fishing gear.

This is an illustration of the vaquita made by Greenpeace Mexico © Greenpeace / Marcelo Otero

Rickards adds that “a healthy Gulf of California is not only part of people’s natural heritage but also critical to safeguard their future. The Mexican government must engage local communities in conservation efforts, rapidly providing profitable gillnet alternatives to fishermen, as well as incentives to use them.”

The WWF recognises plans to capture the vaquita and place them in breeding programmes. However, they highlight that this should only be a last resort and one that accompanies a long-term plan to conserve wild vaquita.

WWF notes Margaret Kinnaird, Leader of the Global Wildlife Practice, WWF International, who says, “to ensure long-term recovery of the vaquita, and the overall effectiveness of the captive-breeding programme, we must also urgently tackle the illegal wildlife trade, including the removal of gillnets – the sole threat to their survival.”

In line with this, the WWF is calling on international institutions, notably the UNESCO World Heritage Committee and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), to apply pressure on Mexico and hold them to account (along with other governments) if they fail to act to protect the Upper Gulf of California.

SIGN THE PETITION: WWF launched an e-action inviting people to write to President Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico and urge him to immediate action to protect marine wildlife like the endangered vaquita, and to protect the local livelihoods in the Gulf of California.

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