Mexico is introducing a permanent ban on the use of gillnets in the last remaining habitat of the endangered vaquita porpoise.

Vaquita Porpoises _2015_06_22
Image: Paula Olson, NOAA

The vaquita – Spanish for "little cow" – is the smallest member of the porpoise family, and it's found only in the waters of Mexico's northern Gulf of California. Yesterday, the country's National Aquaculture and Fisheries Commissioner, Mario Aguilar Sánchez, told reporters that the use of all gillnets in vaquita habitat would be prohibited from September. Night fishing will also be banned before the end of the year.

Long considered the world's rarest and most threatened porpoise species, vaquita populations have been in decline since as far back as the 1950s. But just recently, new estimates based on extensive surveys carried out between September and December 2015 put its numbers at just 60 – down 40% from the 97 animals counted only the year before.

That alarming decline prompted WWF-Mexico CEO Omar Vidal to call for urgent action to save the species. "We can still save the vaquita, but this is our last chance," he warned back in May. "The Mexican government must ban all fishing within the vaquita's habitat now and until the species shows signs of recovery. Anything else is just wishful thinking."

The porpoises' fate is linked to that of another endangered species: a large marine fish known as the totoaba. Totoabas are being heavily poached for their coveted swim bladders – dubbed "aquatic cocaine", the commodity can fetch an astounding $10,000 on the black market as demand soars for its use in Asian traditional medicine and as an ingredient in soup. With poachers racing to cash in on the lucrative totoaba buffet, their gillnets are snaring and drowning the world's remaining vaquitas in the process. Fishing nets set for shrimp also pose a danger.

A recent report from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) Scientific Committee called for a permanent gillnet ban in Mexico, as well as increased enforcement action – not just in Mexico, but also in other countries implicated in the totoaba trade. "Without action the vaquita will be gone – the second entirely preventable cetacean extinction in the last ten years," it warned.

An emergency two-year ban on gillnets across vaquita habitat came into force in May 2015, but conservationists have been pushing for this to be made permanent ever since. 

Mexico's efforts to clamp down on the growing illegal totoaba fishery, and to restrict the use of gillnets, have so far failed to pull the porpoises back from the brink. In fact, the number of fishing boats in the animals' habitat actually increased. In March, the bodies of three dead vaquitas were discovered – all of them died from entanglement, most likely in gillnets probably set for totoaba.


Top header image: Paula Olson, NOAA