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Experts encouraged that survey results shows the vaquita’s numbers have remained stable

By Kendal Blust
Published: Monday, June 12, 2023 - 7:32am

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vaquita survey
Sea Shepherd
Experts watch for vaquita during the May 2023 vaquita sighting expedition.

Last month, experts did a survey in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California to gather data to estimate the remaining number of endangered vaquita porpoises there. Vaquita marina are small, cute porpoises with black markings around their eyes and mouths. They are considered the world's most endangered marine mammal.

The survey crew spotted an estimated 10-13 vaquita — including at least one calf. That’s roughly the same as estimates from previous surveys in 2019 and 2021.

"Vaquitas are absolutely miraculous in persisting against all odds," said Barbara Taylor during a press conference about the survey results. She led the May expedition, alongside the Mexican government, conservation group Sea Shepherd, and more than dozen experts.

→ The vaquita's last stand: The struggle to save the world's rarest marine mammal

The sightings this year are good news for a species that has been in population decline for decades, Taylor said. There were an estimated 600 vaquitas in 1997.

Vaquita porpoise
Paula Olson/NOAA Fisheries
Scientists have saved tissues cells from two female vaquita porpoises.

That’s due in large part to gillnet fishing that can trap and drown the small mammal. And poaching for a large endangered fish called the totoaba — which is trafficked to Asia because of its high value there — has been particularly deadly for the vaquita.

While the survey seems to show that conservation measures are reducing that threat, Taylor and others emphasize that for the vaquita’s population to rebound, much more needs to be done to keep nets out of its habitat.

“This is encouraging news and it shows that vaquita are survivors. But we still need urgent conservation efforts to save these tiny porpoises from extinction,” Alex Olivera, senior Mexico representative at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a news release. “The number of vaquitas may have slightly increased, but this species has low population growth rates. Even in a gillnet-free habitat, it will take about 50 years for the population to return to where it was 15 years ago. Vaquita face an enormous risk of extinction because of the deadly gillnets in their habitat and lack of enforcement by the Mexican government. We need Mexico to urgently comply with existing regulations to prevent the vaquita from disappearing forever.”

A vaquita is trapped in a net
NOAA Fisheries
A vaquita trapped in a net.

Taylor added that alternative fishing gear is urgently needed in the Upper Gulf of California.

"The recovery team for vaquitas has argued since 1997 that vaquitas can only survive if fishermen can make a good living without using gillnets. That is still true," she said.

That will require economic support and political commitment.

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