With Only 22 Vaquita Porpoises Remaining, Scientists Expect Total Extinction

According to the biologists in Mexico, it is evident that the vaquita porpoise, among the world’s smallest and most critically endangered marine mammals, is likely to go extinct by June

It is estimated that the total population of the rare mammal, which is found completely in the Gulf of California, to have been thinned out to about 22. The number is a slight increase from what was expected, with many having estimated that the number of vaquitas had dwindled to as few as 15.

The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is the world’s smallest cetacean. Its name means “little cow” in Spanish. A dark ring around the eyes is its most striking feature, along with a proportionally large dorsal fin. The vaquita is unique among the porpoises as it is the only species of that family found in warm waters, and the size of the dorsal fin is believed to be an adaptation to that, allowing for extra body heat to dissipate

“Cross Flipper with a very shy panda and you’ve bred a vaquita,” journalist Ben Goldfarb wrote for the Pacific Standard.

Unexpectedly, the reason for the extinction lies in the ongoing trafficking of the rare totoaba fish, whose swim bladder is highly prized in China as a delicacy.

“They share their habitat with a fish called the totoaba, a mammoth cousin of the sea bass whose swim bladders are a delicacy worth up to $100,000 per kilogram in mainland China and Hong Kong. Although totoaba fishing has been banned since 1975—they, too, are critically endangered—poaching is rampant. Vaquitas, roughly the same size as totoabas, are prone to getting entangled and drowning in illegal nets.”

Fishermen are seeking the tototaba. Specialists now fear that the next totoaba rush could factually wipe out what remains of the thinned out vaquita population.

“Until now, the government’s position has been to do nothing until the problem subsides. It’s very likely that by June, the species will be extinct … and the problem is no longer an issue. The trafficking of the totoaba fish will continue.” Jorge Urban, the researcher at Baja California Sur University (UABVS) and head of the Marine Mammal Research Program, told Reporte Indigo:

Mexican government hard work to stop the poachers have generally consisted of moves to repress fishermen using force, with Mexican marines and federal police deploying non-lethal weaponry against angry fishermen, who often fight back to free arrested fellow seamen.

When looking at the bigger picture, the fishermen–mainly poverty-stricken laborers from the Baja coast–argue that they are small-fry targets who are at the mercy of Chinese-Mexican illegal dealers and profiteers who give high-interest loans allowing fisherman to acquire nets that cost up to $3,000 each, low-ball the price of totoabas, and sell their goods for an exorbitant profit in China.

“I know people who are dedicated 100 percent to that (totoaba) business, and don’t even have $10 to put gas in the tank of their panga … The Chinese are making the profit, that I can tell you.” told by Fisherman leader Sunshine Rodriguez NBC:

According to the Investigator Andrea Costa from conservationist group Elephant Action, Mexican government hard work towards the illegal fishing trade will continue to fail as long as they target only fishermen, rather than middlemen and traders. Due to Costa’s efforts, 16 Chinese nationals were lately arrested by the Chinese government due to their role in the illegal totoaba trade.

“As long as you hammer, put all your efforts only on the fishermen, only on removing the nets, you will fail. You don’t address the problem, and the problem is a very sophisticated supply chain As long as you don’t hit these people and you do that … you’ll bleed out, not only the vaquita but the whole marine life in the Sea of Cortez.” Told by costa.

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