Image credit: Chris Johnson-earthOCEAN
The diminutive vaquita, or Phocoena sinus, is likely the most critically endangered porpoise species in the world. According to a recent survey, only an estimated 250 individuals remain in the vaquita's tiny habitat in the Gulf of California.
Though the number is astonishingly small, researchers were actually encouraged by their finding—it was much larger than previously thought.
The vaquita's small size makes it especially vulnerable to gill-net fishing. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
SLIDESHOW: Dolphins, Magnificent Mammals
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
Cetaceans around the world are threatened by pollution, ship traffic, and fishing—and small species like the 1.5 meter long vaquita bear the brunt of these burdens.
In 2007, another small porpoise, the Yangtze river dolphin, was declared extinct. Referencing a survey conducted in 1997 that estimated the vaquita population to be only 150 individuals, conservationists feared it might be the second to fall to extinction.
The new survey, initiated in 2008, used two ships to patrol the area, tallying sightings and using hydrophones to collect the vaquita's unique call.
Tim Gerrodette, a marine biologist at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California, who led the 1997 survey and assisted with this more recent one, commented that "We are encouraged, as it is not as bad as we feared," but went on to say that "clearly, the number is not good news."
Gill-net fishing poses the greatest threat to the vaquita's survival. Image credit: Chris Johnson-earthOCEAN
The population of vaquita—which are vulnerable to the gill nets used by fisherman in the region—fell 56 percent in a decade. The challenge, is to stop this decline and, eventually, encourage the population to rebuild.
For more about vaquita porpoises, check out Vaquita: The Search for the Desert Porpoise. Image credit: Chris Johnson-earthOCEAN
Timothy Ragen, executive director of the Marine Mammal Commission which helped fund the study, commented that "this information shows we don't have a lot of time to save the vaquita."
The vaquita makes its home in the Gulf of California. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
In 2005, Mexico created a marine reserve covering 2,000 square kilometers off the coast of the Baja peninsula. Shortly after, gill-net fishing was banned in this area.
Researchers and conservationists believe that the next step in saving the vaquita will be expanding this reserve—creating a larger net-free habitat in which the porpoise can thrive.
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