Cochitos, rejoice! If there are any of you out there.
The Commerce Department's National Marine Fisheries Service has decided that the cochito (Phocoena sinus, a.k.a. the Gulf of California harbor porpoise) is an endangered species, clearing the way for further efforts to find out if any exist.
According to the NMFS, the harbor porpoise inhabits only a portion of the northern Gulf of California, and only 26 have ever been seen alive -- none since 1980.
Even if some porpoises have survived, the endangered-species designation does not commit the federal government to much activity on their behalf. The entire known range of the harbor porpoise is in Mexico and thus cannot be protected by the United States as "critical habitat" for the creature. Neither would it help much to ban commercial or recreational taking of the species, because there is no evidence that the porpoise has ever been taken for those reasons.
But there was elation nonetheless in the offices of the Defenders of Wildlife, an environmental group that has been trying to win endangered-species status for the cochito since 1978 and last year listed it as one of its top 10 priorities for protection.
Defenders official Richard Spotts said surveyors found a cochito carcass washed up on a northern gulf beach last year, raising hopes that the porpoise is swimming out there somewhere in the briny blue. Admittance to the endangered list, according to Spotts, "opens exciting opportunities for additional funding for research and recovery plans."
The cochito, which is 4 1/2 feet long when fully grown, is the world's smallest cetacean, an order of marine mammals that includes whales and dolphins. Environmentalists believe that it may have fallen victim to some of the same things that threaten its bigger brethren, such as fishermen's gillnets or shrimpers' trawlers.
Others may have been done in by the extensive damming of the Colorado River, which used to carry a rich load of nutrients into the Gulf of California, helping support a smorgasbord of fishy foodstuffs for porpoises.
Defenders official John Fitzgerald said the porpoise was named to the group's top 10 list in part because of the opportunities to work cooperatively with Mexico on its salvation. But Spotts said the choice also had something to do with a general public interest in porpoises.
"They're generally very intriguing animals," he said. "People tend to get excited about porpoises. I don't know if it was Flipper on TV or what."
OOPS . . . Four days after the White House nominated Michael Huffington of Texas to be assistant secretary of commerce for trade administration, it issued a terse announcement withdrawing the nomination.
Huffington, a senior executive with Roy M. Huffington Inc. of Houston, was slated to take over for Lawrence J. Brady, a New Hampshire conservative whose hard-line position on trade with the Soviets occasionally put him at odds with his Commerce superiors and affected business interests.
Asked the reason for the withdrawal, White House spokesman Anson Franklin responded: "No comment."
The withdrawal mystified some at Commerce, who speculated that the Republican right wing had decreed Huffington insufficiently intransigent on the East-West question. But other administration sources said the withdrawal was prompted by more mundane considerations.
"The nomination was just premature," said one official. "They hadn't done the background check yet."