Monday, March 28, 2016

Vaquitas Pushed to Brink

Vaquitas are the worlds smallest cetacean and live only in the Gulf of California.  They are also the world's most endangered marine mammal.  Poachers who gill net for totoaba illegally in the gulf are netting vaquitas too.  The pint-sized porpoises--their name means "little cow"--are faced with extinction after 80% have died as bycatch at the hands of greedy fishermen.  Fewer than 100 remain in the wild and could disappear by 2018 according to US Fish & Wildlife biologists.

Vaquitas are secretive, sightings are very rare, causing some fishermen to claim the porpoise is already extinct.  They have a charming face with mouths and eyes outlined with a darker shade of grey.  Unfortunately they inhabit a restrictive range with the totoaba, a large migratory fish hunted for its swim bladders that fetch $20,000 each becuase the organ is considered a delicacy by Chinese. Depsite efforts of the Mexican government to control gill net fishing for totoaba and expanding the protected reserved at the head of the Gulf of California, the vaquita population continues to decline along with the totoaba stocks.  Fishing for totoaba was banned in 1975.  A resurgent Chinese economy in 2011 reignited the demand for swim bladders or "money maw", a popular ingredient in soup, and halted a temporary decline in the rate of vaquita population loss.  The local source of fish swim bladder was wiped out by Chinese demand.  Easy money made by illegally hunting totoaba could not be resisted by poor Mexicans not wanting to get involved in the drug trade.  Fines for illegal possession of swim bladders can be as low as $500.  The vaquita's lost rate topped 18% annually.  By 2012 just 97 vaquita remained alive.

Personal intervention by the Mexican President resulted in the establishment of more protected areas of the gulf.  Stepped up enforcement by the Mexican navy using advanced technology and more boats has slashed the number of illegal gill-net boats.  A proposed law making fish poaching and smuggling a felony on par with drug trafficking is pending, but not a high-priority agenda item.  But as long as the market for totoaba bladders exists in China, there will be a conservation problem in the gulf.  A recent investigation by Greenpeace found 13 Hong Kong shops selling Jin Qian Min.  According to the investigators most of it was being bought not for consumption, but by businessmen for commodity speculation!  It takes six years for a vaquita to reach sexual maturity and they only breed every other year.  To replace the vaquitas lost already, will take about forty years.  Unless conservation efforts are rapidly concentrated on saving the vaquita, it will go the way of the baiji, the Yangtze River dolphin, the first cetacean to be extinguished by man.