The looming threat of extinction hangs heavily over numerous creatures in the animal kingdom. However, in an unprecedented move, the International Whaling Commission (IWC), established 70 years ago, has issued its first-ever extinction alert.
The urgent call to action is aimed at rescuing the world's tiniest marine mammal, the vaquita, from the precipice of annihilation.
What is a vaquita?
The vaquita, also known as the Gulf porpoise, is a unique species, dwelling solely at the northern tip of Mexico's Gulf of California. Sporting dark eye rings, lip spots, and a dorsal-fin-to-mouth stripe, it exhibits a dark gray hue on its back, transitioning to an almost white tone on its belly.
According to Dr. Lindy Porter of the IWC, the vaquita now holds the ignominious title of the rarest creature on Earth, facing a more severe threat of extinction than any other animal on the IUCN Red List. Currently, only 10 of these creatures survive, a drastic decline from approximately 300 in 2005 and 30 in 2017.
Measuring a mere 1.5 meters in length, the vaquita ranks as the smallest marine mammal globally. It relies on high-frequency sounds for communication and navigation, a characteristic shared with other whale species. These elusive creatures tend to avoid boats and human encounters, briefly surfacing for breath before vanishing beneath the waves. They generally lead solitary lives or form small groups of 2-3 individuals.
The primary cause behind the vaquita's dwindling population is the illegal fishing of the totoaba fish, prized in China's illicit medicine trade. Fishermen employ large gill nets, which ensnare these hapless vaquitas.
"Despite nearly thirty years of repeated warnings, the vaquita hovers on the brink of extinction due to entanglement in illegal fishing nets," lamented the IWC in a statement.
How can we save the vaquitas?
Desperate attempts to safeguard these diminutive porpoises from extinction have involved collaborations between the government and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, deploying trained dolphins by the Navy for location assistance, and various rescue efforts. The plan to transfer them to a protected marine sanctuary and commence a captive breeding program was abandoned after the death of a captured female.
While the smallest marine mammal faces the grim prospect of extinction during our lifetime, the Mexican Navy has initiated a Zero Tolerance Zone (ZTA) plan, employing 193 concrete blocks to curtail net fishing. In theory, this action has resulted in a 90 percent reduction in net usage within the area, but it may have merely displaced fishermen to its fringes.
Encouragingly, marine researchers reported that the vaquita population remained stable in May 2023, with the same numbers observed as in 2021 and 2019 near San Felipe, Mexico, including a new baby vaquita.
Dr. Porter noted, "They haven't stopped multiplying. If we can lower the danger, the population may recover. We can't stop now."
The IWC advocates for a complete ban on gillnet fishing and the pursuit of safe, sustainable alternatives to protect both the fishing community's livelihoods and the vaquita's hope for survival.
Research indicates that vaquitas may hold the key to their own survival, as some individuals appear to have developed strategies to evade gillnets. Observations revealed that certain vaquitas steered clear of the nets, while others bore scars from previous encounters, albeit surviving.
Dr. Taylor explained, "If you kill 99% of the animals, the small percentage that remains is probably not a coincidence. Models do not necessarily explain the intelligence of the vaquitas, which may have learned how to escape from gillnets. This could help prevent the extinction of this species for a certain time, but the vaquitas are not far from disappearing because gillnets remain the main means of livelihood for the fishermen in the nearby towns, and even protecting the small area where they and individual Akita remain seems impossible to enforce.
"These nets are the only source of the problem. If a solution is found that can guarantee the fishermen's livelihood and also ensure the removal of the threat to the vaquitas, then that would be the ideal situation."