Photo: WWF

By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS

They currently number less than a dozen worldwide.

But the little vaquita porpoise, the world’s rarest marine mammal, was once a common sight in the shallow, turbid waters along the shoreline of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.

The world’s smallest cetacean, the vaquita is native only to Mexico, and the upper Gulf of California is the only place the vaquita lives.

Because of their shy nature, vaquitas weren’t discovered until 1958, when marine biologists estimated that there were about 2,000 to 2,500 of the mammals in existence. (Since they have a triangle-shaped dorsal fin that sticks out above water, they had previously been commonly mistaken for dolphins).

The first comprehensive vaquita survey took place in 1997 and estimated a population of 567 individuals, their numbers having been gravely diminished as a result of untempered gillnet fishing in their supposedly “protected habitat.”

Pressured by both national and international ecologic organizations, Mexico’s Secretariat of the Environment a decade ago finally proclaimed most of the upper Gulf of Cortez, where the vaquitas reside, a protected non-fishing zone, but enforcement was lax, or better said, nonexistent.
By 2007, the number of vaquitas had dropped to just 150, and by 2018, there were less than 19 left alive.Most of the fishing conducted in the area is with gillnets.The gillnets are intended to catch fish, but the vaquitas frequently become entangled in them and die.Then, in 2018, the Mexican government reduced the vaquita protection zone, justifying the decision on the grounds that there had been a drop in the number of the tiny porpoises.Still, local fishermen continued to plow their boats and gillnets into the region, and government authorities did nothing to stop them.

Finally, on Wednesday, July 14, of this year, the Mexican government officially abandoned the fishing-free reserve, opening up the area to as many as 60 fishing boats at a time and essentially condemning the last remaining vaquitas to extinction.

Environmental experts claim that the decision was motivated by commercial interests, since most of the fishermen in the area use gillnets to catch totoaba, the bladder of which is consumed as a delicacy in China and sells for thousands of dollars per kilo.

But the real price for Mexico’s decision to dispense with the vaquita reserve will not be paid by the Chinese bon vivants as they savor their totoaba bladders; it will be paid by the last remaining vaquitas on Earth, as one more critically endangered species disappears.

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