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The Death Knell Sounds for the World's Smallest Porpoise

22/12/2014 13:52 GMT | Updated 18/02/2015 10:59 GMT

The vaquita or Gulf of California porpoise (Phocoena sinus) was only identified as a species in 1958, but tragically it is likely soon to be extinct. The smallest of all cetaceans at about one and a half metres in length, it has the characteristic blunt porpoise face, with triangular dorsal fin, dark back, white belly, grey flanks, and also has dark patches around its eyes and lips.

If this pint-sized porpoise does become extinct, it means that we will have discovered and exterminated the smallest of the cetaceans in less than a human lifetime. Its imperilled status has long been of concern and its main threat well established as incidental capture in fishing nets, sometimes called 'bycatch'. There have been many authoritative calls for urgent action but the sad news of its possible impending extinction illustrates that no effective action is being taken.

The vaquita is endemic to Mexico with a very restricted distribution, in the upper Gulf of California in Mexico, mainly north of 30º45′N and limited to approximately 4,000 km2. The most recent report on its plight came from the July 2014 meeting of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA). Its report states: "The best estimate of current abundance is 97 vaquitas of which fewer than 25 are likely to be reproductively mature females. The vaquita will be extinct, possibly by 2018, if fishery by-catch is not eliminated immediately. Therefore, CIRVA strongly recommends that the Government of Mexico enact emergency regulations establishing a gillnet exclusion zone... covering the full range of the vaquita - not simply the existing Refuge - starting in September 2014."

The committee emphasised that the exclusion zone was the only way to prevent the extinction of the species. Then in a recent dramatic development, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) took the unprecedented action of publicising aerial photographs taken this month showing 90 gill net fishing boats inside the Vaquita Reserve. Three could be seen to be deploying nets, ten were recovering them and four sets of nets can be seen 'soaking' (left in the water 'resting' and unattached to a boat but still potentially catching animals).

The IUCN says that the Mexican authorities have made various indications that a ban on gillnetting was imminent but this is clearly not happening and, in part, the local fishery is illegal anyway. The key prize for those operating outside of the law is the highly valuable swim bladders of a large critically endangered fish, the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi). The market for these rare tissues is in Asia, where they are sold as medicines. Totoaba used to be found reaching a length of 200 cm (6.5 feet) and 100 kg (220 pounds). Large ones are very rare now and the first attempt to ban the fishery dates back to the 1970s.

As an observer from outside the country, it is difficult to understand why swift and effective action has not already been taken given how well characterised, and serious, the situation is. However, fisheries, including fishery bans, are notoriously difficult to manage. There needs to be an effective way to make the ban work and it has to be fully backed with political will and this may in part be the problem - porpoises don't vote but fishermen do! Is it possible that for some local interests the presence of this little-known cetacean may simply be seen as a problem, one that disappears if the porpoise does likewise?

Some may wonder if it really matters if the vaquita is lost forever. Inherent in that kind of thinking, which extends way beyond just this particular species, is a deeply dangerous misunderstanding of our place in the world. Whilst the awful threat posed by climate change has righty gained tremendous public and political attention, regrettably the wave of wildlife extinction that we are creating planet-wide does not share the same spotlight. Yet in this too we are undermining the very life-support systems on which we all depend. Planetary biodiversity is an interconnected system of ecosystems made up of individual species and populations. And each time we knock out one of these, we destabilise our biosphere a little further. We also incrementally lose the heritage, culture, aesthetics and inspiration that these creatures provide humanity, and that's not to be sniffed at either. Put simply, the loss of the vaquita will hurt its ecosystem and hurt us too and, contrary to rumours born in science fiction, there is no way back from extinction.

A few years back another small cetacean was declared functionally extinct. This was the baiji or Chinese river dolphin (Lipotes vexillifer). I have heard many say since that we must never allow another cetacean to go the same way, but this will undoubtedly happen unless effective action follows swiftly. Mexico has the primary responsibility but the full international community needs to respond and help in whatever ways are necessary, including stopping the illegal totoaba trade across all national borders.

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