Cetacean Society International

Whales Alive! - Vol. XVI No. 2 - April 2007

Vaquita: Cetacean Extinction In Real Time!

By Leigh Barrett, Executive Director, Vaquita.org

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature1 - in their last Conservation Action Plan2 [2003] - declared two species of toothed whales to be the most endangered and in peril of extinction: the Chinese white river dolphin, or baiji (Lipotes vexillifer) and the Gulf of California porpoise, or vaquita (Phocoena simus).

By now, beginning of the year 2007, the baiji has been declared "functionally extinct". So what is the future of the vaquita? Will it survive to be enjoyed by future generations or will it fall victim to the same human activites that led to the extinction of the baiji?

With the disappearence of the baiji, the vaquita becomes the most critically endangered cetacean on the planet. An international group of scientists working for CIRVA3, Mexico's international recovery team for vaquita, estimated in 2007 that the entire vaquita population consisted of fewer than 300 individuals. Less than a decade earlier the population was estimated to be nearly twice that size, with 567 individuals. It is clear that the vaquita will follow in the wake of the baiji unless an emergency conservation strategy is effectively implemented within the next two years.

Before looking at the future, it is important to understand the problems and the failings of conservation measures which have led to the current crisis. The plight of the vaquita starts with one of its special characteristics: it is a naturally rare species with an extremely small at-sea range, occupying just a few thousand square kilometers in the extreme northern Gulf of California, Mexico. Animals with naturally small populations like the vaquita usually do not do well in the struggle for survival, especially when under pressure. The main problem for vaquita survival has been known for many years: gill nets used by local fishermen. Over 2000 artisanal fishermen operate inside the vaquita's habitat; their gill nets pose a direct threat of entanglement and drowning for vaquita and compete directly for the same prey resources.

Vaquita has been officially recognized as an endangered species for over 20 years. It was first listed as `in danger of extinction' under the US Endangered Species Act in 1985, with a mandate for cooperative work between the US and Mexico to help its recovery. It was then listed as an endangered species under Mexico's Norma Oficial Mexicana, DOF 16 de Mayo 1994. Then in 1996, it was listed as a `species in critical danger of extinction' by the World Conservation Union.

Vaquita is the most critically endangered cetacean

Vaquita is the most critically endangered cetacean
in the world. Photo by Alejandro Robles.

With the recognition of its endangered status and pressure from conservation groups, Mexico has been proactive in introducing mitigation measures to reduce vaquita by-catch - the accidental entanglement and drowning of vaquita in fishing nets, and created the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve in 1993, to exclude the use of all gillnets in the major part of its habitat. In addition, over the past few decades numerous high profile NGO's have actively fundraised and campaigned to save the vaquita from extinction. Despite all of these well-intentioned conservation efforts, scientific studies have proven that vaquitas still continue to drown in gillnets in unsustainable numbers. A study in 1997 estimated that approximately 75 vaquitas (of an estimated 300 or less left now) accidentally drown in gillnets each year. CIRVA scientists suspect that this mortality figure is probably even higher today, given that aerial surveys of fishing vessels show a two-fold increase in the number of vessels fishing in vaquita habitat over the last decade. Another study in the year 2000 estimated an annual population decline of 6 to 14% due to fishing boats from one harbour alone. Given the rate of mortality and the reproductive rate (estimated to be 50%, lower than in other porpoises), scientists predict the vaquita now has just a few years left on the planet, unless immediate action is taken to remove gillnets from their habitat.

US scientists who were first-hand witnesses of the demise of the baiji find the vaquita's situation uncomfortably familiar. Scientists have identified the solution to the vaquita problem, governments are legally bound by international conventions to assist the recovery of the species, local laws are in place to protect the vaquita, but to date these conservation measures exist on paper only and not in practice. The laws are not enforced and insufficient government and NGO funding is currently available to address the socio-economic problems that are created by implementing the proposed conservation strategies.

Time is running out for the vaquita. The only effective solution is clear: the nets must come out of the water now! Money and political will are the only factors standing in the way of vaquita's future on this planet. It will become extinct unless governments, NGO's, corporations and private individuals are prepared to provide adequate funding for a net buy-out program to compensate the approximately 2000 artisanal fishermen who currently fish with gillnets in the vaquita's habitat and to help them develop alternative livelihoods.

After the baiji was declared extinct, the most frequently asked question among the world's conservation blog sites was, "What could have been done to prevent this tragedy?" For vaquita, the answer is clear and simple, and it has been known for more than two decades: it can be saved if the human race believes it is worth saving. We can only hope that enough people believe this to be the case.

If you would like further information about this article or to find out more about how you can help save the vaquita, please visit http://www.vaquita.org/.

1. IUCN: The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources is the world's largest and most important conservation network. It is a union of sovereign states, government agencies and non-governmetal organizations.

2. Conservation Action Plan: The IUCN/SSC Action Plan assesses the conservation status of species and their habitats, and specifies conservation priorities.

3. CIRVA: The International Committee for the Recovery of Vaquita established by the Mexican Government in 1997. The mandate of this group was to propose a recovery plan for Vaquita based on the best available scientific information.


Vaquita continue to drown in in gill nets like this in
unsustainable numbers. Photo by Alejandro Robles.

Video Available on Chinese River Dolphin Extinction

CSI Director Emeritus Robbins Barstow has produced a new, 24-minute video about the extinction of the Chinese River Dolphin - the "Baiji" - which he is making available to anyone interested for educational use.

He and his wife Meg are among the very few Americans who have ever actually seen a living Baiji. No one will ever see one again.

This unique species of freshwater river dolphin had inhabited the Yangtze River in China for millions of years. After an extensive scientific survey last fall found no survivors, the species was declared to be extinct. (See front page article in January 2007 issue of Whales Alive!)

Twenty-two years ago, in September 1985, the Barstows had the rare opportunity, while on a trip to China, to visit the Chinese Institute of Hydrobiology, in Wuhan, on the Yangtze River. There they took photos and films of the last living captive specimen of Baiji - named Chee Chee - which finally died in 2002.

Barstow's video tells the story of this visit, and warns about the imminent threat of extinction now facing two other species of cetacean - the Yangtze River Finless Porpoise and the Gulf of California "Vaquita." (See story about the Vaquita above.)

To secure a copy of the "Eyewitness to Extinction" video, send $20.00 to Robbins Barstow, 190 Stillwold Drive, Wethersfield, CT 06109 USA (includes mailing cost).

Eyewitness To Extinction video cover

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