Save the Vaquita

Republished from National Marine Mammal Foundation

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Extinction of the vaquita, the world’s most endangered marine mammal, is imminent without the immediate elimination of illegal fishing and removal of deadly gillnets from the vaquitas’ environment. Despite the heroic efforts of the Mexican government to protect vaquitas, the animals are continuing to die at an alarming rate in illegal gillnets. Fewer than 30 vaquitas remain. Between 1997 and 2008, unsustainable deaths in gillnets caused vaquitas to decline from around 600 to 250. Since 2011, the resumption of illegal fishing for a large endangered fish (the totoaba) increased the decline to 34% a year, resulting in only 60 vaquitas remaining in December 2015. The swim bladders of totoaba fetch large sums of money in Hong Kong and Chinese black markets. In response to the alarming rate of decline, the Mexican government instituted a two-year gillnet ban throughout the vaquita’s range (2015-2017), increased enforcement with the Mexican Navy, and compensated fishers affected by the two-year gillnet ban ($72 million). Despite these substantial government actions, illegal fishing continues and will likely result in the extinction of vaquitas in the next few years.

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The Mexican government has determined that emergency action is needed to temporarily remove some of the remaining animals from their threatening environment and create a safe haven for them in the northern Gulf of California. An emergency conservation plan has been developed by an international team of experts, with field recovery operations set to begin in May 2017. Catching and caring for vaquitas may prove impossible, but unless we try, the species will likely vanish.

The emergency action plan has been adopted by Secretaría de Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT, Mexico) on the recommendation of their international recovery team, the Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (CIRVA). The plan will be implemented in parallel with ongoing efforts to end illegal fishing and remove the threat of gillnets in the Upper Gulf of California. Under SEMARNAT’s leadership, the Consortium for Vaquita Conservation, Protection, and Recovery (VaquitaCPR) was established to develop and implement the emergency plan, with participating organizations from Mexico, Europe, and the U.S.

The Government of Mexico has strongly supported vaquita conservation with over $100 million spent to date and plans to commit funds in 2017 for this critical step. Officials estimate the plan will cost more than $3 million in 2017 and will rely on a variety of funding sources, including donations from the public, private organizations, and non-profit groups. There is an urgent need for immediate funding to avoid delaying field efforts. A time delay could jeopardize any chance of rescuing the vaquita from extinction. Please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. with offers of support.

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Given the dire situation, CIRVA recommended that immediate attempts be made to place some vaquitas into a temporary sanctuary. The eventual goal is to return these animals into a gillnet-free environment. Catching and housing vaquitas will be difficult, and may even prove impossible if the species is not suitable for such conservation actions. However, the species will likely vanish without an attempt at human intervention.

An emergency conservation action plan was developed by key marine mammal experts around the world to locate, catch, and house vaquitas in the Gulf of California, with the ultimate goal to return the animals to a gillnet-free environment. Each of these objectives has unique challenges and inherent risks, many of which represent procedures that to date have only been attempted with a limited number of porpoises of other species. To address these challenges and mitigate risk, the Consortium for Vaquita Conservation, Protection, and Recovery (VaquitaCPR) was assembled to implement a stepwise plan, comprising an international, interdisciplinary team with experts on all aspects of the proposed work. Further, an expert advisory group has been established to provide guidance and input at critical stages throughout the implementation of the plan. Details of the plan are based on the best available science on vaquitas and other porpoise species and take into consideration the IUCN Species Survival Commission’s Guidelines on the Use of Ex situ Management for Species Conservation. If successful, the proposed path has the potential to protect some of the remaining vaquitas while the necessary removal of gillnets from the animal's home range is accomplished.

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ONLY 30 VAQUITA PORPOISES ARE LEFT IN THE WORLD. PLEASE HELP US SAVE THEM. Your contribution will directly support the emergency conservation action plan by rapidly mobilizing field operations for an expertly coordinated and urgent attempt to save the vaquita from extinction.

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