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More conservation efforts critical to save the vaquita

July 18 marks International Save the Vaquita Day to raise awareness about this critically endangered marine mammal, which is part of the United Nations Environment Programme's (UNEP) Wild for Life campaign.

While optimism can be in short supply when it comes to wildlife conservation, the spotting of three vaquita calves in October 2019 in the Upper Gulf of California in Mexico was a particularly exciting moment.

A glimmer of hope in the struggle to save the world’s smallest marine mammal, that is careening towards extinction. The calves survival will be the make or break for the species, whose number stands no more than 22, according to the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA).

Vaquita, named after the Spanish for ‘little cow’, lives in the shallow waters in the Sea of Cortez off Mexico’s northwest coast. Grayish in colour, with delicate features and dark marks around their eyes and mouth, they are the smallest of the cetaceans family that includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises. They feed on small fish, shrimp, squid and octopuses.

Although the vaquita has only been known to science since 1958, it’s numbers have declined by more than 90 per cent in the last two decades, largely due to illegal fishing for another endangered species that shares its habitat -  the totoaba, prized for its swim bladders. Vaquita drown when they get trapped in gillnets (large vertical nets) used to catch the totoaba and die from asphyxiation, unable to surface for air.

A report by the 2020 International Whaling Commission indicates that vaquita conservation is possible if “there is a rigorous, concerted enforcement effort to prevent illegal fishing and the use of gillnets throughout the vaquita’s range.”

UNEP Mexico’s Representative Officer, Dolores Barrientos said: “We have been tracking the progress which is dependent upon the enforcement against illegal fishing practices in the one area in Mexico that it inhabits.”

Several conservation efforts are under way to rescue the vaquita. These include: the adoption of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) Decisions 18.292 to 18.295 on Totoaba, which include considerations on the illegal trade in totoaba and its implications for the vaquita.

The Mexican government, in addition to creating the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), outlawed use of gillnets in 2017, banned nighttime fishing and required vessels that operate in the protected zone to pass through monitored entry and exit points.

To learn more about vaquitas please see here.