A Species In Peril


Photo by Paula Olson, NOAA

Vaquita

Phocoena sinus


IUCN Status: CRITICALLY ENDANGERED


This may be the last time you see this little porpoise. This relative of whales and dolphins is sadly right on the brink of extinction.


I really wish I was just being dramatic, but I’m not.


Since being discovered in 1958, the population of these marine mammals has continued to fall. Found only in the Gulf of California, The Guardian reports that experts estimate that only 15 individuals remain in the wild. There are currently none in captivity. Like many other animals, their decline is driven by human activity. The Gulf of California, like most other bodies of water are heavily fished.


The main culprit is the gillnet. NOAA defines gillnets as “a wall of netting that hangs in the water column, typically made of monofilament or multifilament nylon.” This type of fishing net sits vertically in the water. The nylon filament makes it difficult for marine creatures to see. The size of the mesh varies by the types of fish species fisherman want to catch. The design allows for just the head of fish to slip through, but still small enough that the whole body cannot pass. The mesh catches on the fish’s gills, giving the netting its name. This kind of netting can either be floated at the surface an hung down or anchored with weight at the bottom and floats at the top to have them closer to the sea bottom. The positioning of the net is also dependent on the type of fish being caught. The major problem with fishing nets and particularly with gills nets is that they are really non-specific. Every year, there is more than 7.3 million tons of bycatch. Bycatch is what they call all of the other species that get caught and typically die that fishermen weren’t aiming for. This includes other fish, whales, dolphins, sea turtles and even birds.


There are organizations and government that actively try to reduce bycatch through a series of different measures. The Safina Center notes several mitigation efforts. Some use weak links that allow for larger species, like whales, to break through. There are also lights used to reduce turtle bycatch and pingers to deter marine mammals. These mitigations are nice as long as they used and enforced. Just last month, The Guardian reported that Mexican fishermen were seen gillnets, despite the extreme danger it poses to the already tiny population of Vaquita, and attacked the crew of the Sea Shepherd, an environmental group that is helping the Mexican government patrol for illegal netting.


The future for Vaquitas is very uncertain. The only thing that is clear right now is that without extreme measures to protect these animals and their habitat, they will be lost to history forever.


If you’d like to help save the vaquita, please visit VivaVaquita.org.

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