Finally, a Reason to Hope for the World’s Most Endangered Marine Mammal

Mexico has announced a new policy to save the vaquita, a tiny porpoise on the brink of extinction.
A vaquita captured as bycatch. (Photo: Getty Images)
Mar 1, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Kristina Bravo is Assistant Editor at TakePart.

From the little blue macaw to the Javan tiger, many animals have vanished under our watch. The long list is poised to soon include another: the vaquita, a tiny porpoise found only in the Gulf of California.

It’s the most endangered marine mammal on the planet, and a last-ditch effort by the Mexican government gives the fewer than 100 vaquitas remaining their final chance at survival. Mexico’s environment ministry this week announced a new policy that would ban gill nets—in which vaquitas, which grow about four feet long, get trapped and die—for two years across the northern Gulf of California. The thousands of local fishers who use them to catch shrimp, mostly for the U.S. market, will be compensated for their loss.

The policy will take effect in March. Fishers and others who depend on shrimp catch will receive installments of $72 million over two years.

“I really think that this is the last chance, and we had better get our act together,” Omar Vidal, director of World Wildlife Fund Mexico, told The New York Times. “I think the government is very serious.”

During the two-year ban, researchers will work to improve vaquita-safe fishing gear more effective for catching shrimp (fishers say the current nets don’t let them catch enough to take care of their families).

Whether the policy will work remains to be seen, but it’s not the first time the Mexican government has worked to save the mammals. It created a 500-square-mile refuge area for vaquitas in 2005 and has paid fishers not to fish within the refuge. These efforts decreased the annual population decline from 10 percent to 5 percent, but that rate then jumped to at least 18 percent. The major reason isn’t shrimp catching but the illegal fishing of another endangered species, the totoaba. Fishers catch them with gill nets for their swim bladders, a delicacy that fetches up to $10,000 per kilogram in China, where it’s believed to improve fertility and skin conditions.

According to the environment ministry, the Mexican navy will team up with officials to impose the gill net ban and put an end to illegal fishing. Drones and satellite tracking will be used as well.