The vaquita is the world's rarest marine mammal. In 2014, researchers counted just 100 remaining members of the Mexican species — down from 200 in 2012 — and estimated that the population would decline by 20 percent more each year. Sure enough, on Friday the Mexican government reported that just 60 porpoises remain, despite a May 2015 two-year ban on the use of gillnets that frequently kill them.
These adorable creatures — the "little cows" grow less than five feet long and weigh just over 100 pounds or so — are often caught up in the fishing nets designed to catch the totoaba, an endangered bass used as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.
“Despite all the best efforts, we are losing the battle to stop totoaba fishing and save the vaquita,” Omar Vidal, chief executive of the Mexican chapter of the World Wildlife Fund, said in a statement. He added that nothing but a total fishing ban in the porpoise's habitat would prevent extinction at this point. And other countries will have to pitch in to cut off the market for illegally caught merchandise. “In addition to a fishing ban, Mexico, the United States and China need to take urgent and coordinated action to stop the illegal fishing, trafficking and consumption of totoaba," he said.
Indeed, even with the emergency two-year ban — enforced the Navy and supported by millions of dollars in compensation for lost revenue to fishermen — 42 illegal nets have been discovered in the area over the past four months, and three vaquita were found dead from net entanglement in March.
“We are watching this precious native species disappear before our eyes,” Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, chair of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), said in the statement. Established by the Mexican government, this international group of scientists provided the latest headcount for the marine mammals.
"Our latest survey confirms the catastrophic decline before the emergency gillnet ban," Rojas-Bracho said. "This gillnet ban and strong enforcement must continue if we are to have any hope of saving the vaquita."
If gillnetting is allowed to resume when the two-year ban ends, the researchers said, the vaquita could be extinct by 2022.