Save the Vaquita!

Save the Vaquita!

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Ben Ashack started this petition to Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador


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Fewer than 20 Vaquita are left in the wild. You can help prevent its extinction.

The vaquita is a small porpoise endemic to the Sea of Cortez in the Upper Gulf of California in Mexico. It is estimated that there are now fewer than 10 vaquitas left, with a total population decline of 98.6% since 2011. 

The vaquita has the smallest geographical range of any marine mammal. It only lives in the northern part of the Gulf of California in Mexico. Most vaquitas live east of the town of San Felipe, Baja California, within a 1,519-square-mile area that is less than one-fourth the size of metropolitan Los Angeles.

The vaquita is the smallest porpoise and the smallest cetacean. It lives only in the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez), where the latest abundance estimates point to just 30 animals left (as of November 2016). The original population in the 1930s was estimated to be around 5,000 individuals strong. In the 1990s, that number had declined to about 700. But in recent years, the population has declined at a dramatic rate. Between 2011 and 2016, the population has declined by 90%. The latest estimates based on acoustic and visual surveys point to only between 6 and 22 individuals surviving in 2018. 

The single most serious threat to the vaquita, and the cause for its rapid decline, is the use of gillnets in the vaquita habitat.

A gillnet is a wall of netting that hangs in the water column. The mesh is designed so that fish can get their heads through, but not the rest of their bodies. As they struggle to free themselves, they get entangled with their gills. Gillnets are very effective and used around the world, but often lead to large amounts of by-catch and pose a threat to other marine animals, such as sea turtles, seals, and sea lions, and cetaceans like the vaquita. If a vaquita gets entangled, it only has minutes to free itself. Most animals drown, and those that escape often do so with severe injuries.

The use of gillnets in the vaquita habitat is currently banned throughout the vaquita’s range. However, illegal fishing continues, targeting the totoaba for the Chinese market. The totoaba is a large species of fish that, like the vaquita, is listed on the IUCN Red List as “critically endangered”. This illegal fishing activity is quickly driving this species to extinction while also severely accelerating the decline of the vaquita as the animals get entangled as by-catch and drown.

The totoaba fish are highly sought after for their swim bladders, which in China are used for dubious medicinal purposes. The dried swim bladders are so valuable that they are referred to as the “cocaine of the sea” and command a price of up to $46,000 per kg on the Chinese black market. Because of the totoaba’s large size, nets designed to catch the fish have a mesh size that is also perfect to catch vaquita. 

Reduced flow of the Colorado River: The Colorado River feeds into the Sea of Cortez, and a reduced inflow of nutrients is indeed believed to have degraded the vaquita habitat. However, scientists found that nutrient concentrations are still well above limits at which primary productivity would be impacted, and the vaquita has enough fish to feed on.

Contamination due to pollution: Pollution was also believed to play a role. However, contamination levels in the Sea of Cortez are also well below levels where they would present a risk to the vaquita.

The Mexican government has responded with a gillnet ban, a ban on night-time fishing and better controls to monitor fishing activity in the Sea of Cortez. It has also deployed its navy to assist and vowed to step up its enforcement efforts. Local and international NGOs have also been operating in the area for years to remove derelict fishing gear.

But none of the efforts to counter the threat have been able to lower the rate of decline, and vaquita continue to drown in nets. Resources for enforcement are insufficient, units deployed to fight the rampant illegal fishery often lack the authority or the means to intervene and poachers are rarely prosecuted. Investigations also revealed cases of government corruption and pointed to the involvement of criminal cartels in the tototaba trade.

The Solution: Eliminate Gillnets, Prosecute Poachers

Experts agree that the only way to save the species is to take immediate and decisive action: 

Remove active and abandoned gillnets from the Sea of Cortez
Step up efforts to enforce the existing gillnet ban and prosecute those that violate it to the full extent of the law.
Provide alternatives for the local economy, in which fishing still plays a major role.
With a new president at the helm, and a new minister of environment and natural resources in charge, it is now absolutely vital to reinforce to the Mexican government that there is no time to take a break. The vaquita will join China's baiji river dolphin and go extinct while the world is watching if the Mexican government does not take its commitment to saving the vaquita seriously. It needs to act today, as the last vaquita may drown in a gillnet tomorrow. 

“The world is watching as the endangered vaquita porpoise in the Sea of Cortez is approaching extinction. This is our very last chance to prevent the loss of a unique species that is just as important to the identity of the region of Mexico it calls home as it is to humanity and as a piece of the vast and amazing tapestry of biodiversity on this planet. We call on the Mexican government to drastically step up its efforts to take immediate, decisive, and effective action to end the gillnet threat once and for all; to put much-needed resources towards the strict enforcement of the existing gillnet ban and to prosecute those that violate it to the full extent of the law. Do not wait for others to solve this problem. Do not waste precious time. Every single day counts. Do not let it be your legacy that you let the only cetacean endemic to Mexico go extinct on your watch.
¡Viva la vaquita marina!”

You can be the vaquita's voice!
Help us save this unique and beautiful species from extinction. Sign and share the petition and spread the word! #SaveTheVaquita

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