The world’s rarest marine mammal, the Vaquita, is on the brink of extinction with less than a dozen estimated to be left in the wild. These tiny porpoises are endemic to Mexico and are found in the Sea of Cortéz, also known as the Gulf of California. With black, panda-like markings around their eyes and a miniature size that doesn’t exceed five feet, they are the smallest porpoise in the world and one of the most unique-looking ones.
So why are these dark-eyed sea mammals so threatened?
The vaquita seems to be safe from pollution as their habitat has shown to have some of the lowest levels of pollutants in the area. Other theories of potential threat to this critically endangered marine mammal have been examined and ultimately dismissed.
Unlike many other species on earth, there is really only one known threat to the vaquita, fishing.
Entanglement in gillnets due to illegal and unsustainable fishing is the only known reason for the vaquita’s rapid decline. Even though fishermen are not intending to catch and sell the vaquita, the helpless animal is still getting caught in the crosshairs.
What fishermen are really after is what people are calling “the cocaine of the sea.’
The totoaba fish, also known as “the cocaine of the sea”, is highly sought after by the Chinese who are willing to pay enormous amounts between $20,000 and $80,000 per kilo of the totoaba’s swim bladder that is believed to have medicinal uses.
Although the gillnets used to catch totoabas and other fish are banned in the upper gulf, the high reward for this big-ticket fish encourages illegal fishing in the vaquita’s habitat.
Sustainable fishing practices are needed now more than ever if the vaquita is to be saved from extinction.
As long as there is commercial fishing in the Gulf, the Mexican government and local communities must work together to come up with a solution that protects endangered species while still allowing local fishermen to make a living.
Different fishing zones are being explored to promote diversity and sustainability in the Gulf’s fishing practices. The Mexican government has already distributed “vaquita safe” fishing nets although fishermen say they decrease their catch significantly.
The impact of unsustainable fishing practices on the vaquita likely foreshadows the fate of many other marine species if more sustainable fishing practices are not implemented soon.