Vaquita are one of the world’s most threatened mammals, with less than ten individuals thought to remain. These all exist in a small area of the Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California UNESCO World Heritage site in Mexico, where entanglement in illegal fishing nets threatens their survival. The RRF is supporting removal of illegal fishing nets to save this critically endangered species from extinction.

The Gulf of California in north-western Mexico is an area of global marine conservation significance. It supports a plethora of unique marine life, with some 90 fish species not found elsewhere, including the Critically Endangered endemic Gulf Porpoise or "vaquita". Other notable marine life includes the Critically Endangered Black Sea Bass and Totoaba fish, as well five species of dolphin and 11 species of whale which visit the Gulf.

The vaquita is the most endangered cetacean in the world. Numbers having declined drastically, mainly due to unsustainable fishing practices that result in incidental ‘by-catch’ of vaquita. In particular, vaquita are affected by gillnets used to capture the endemic ‘totoaba’ fish, which is targeted for its swim bladder for overseas markets.  Commercial fishing was banned in the Vaquita’s core range in 2005, known as the ‘Vaquita Refuge’. However, the last visual survey (October 2019) estimated fewer than ten vaquita and a recent acoustic sampling effort (September 2020) only detected vaquita in a smaller area of approximately 2 square miles within the Vaquita Refuge. This area has been officially declared as a ‘Zero Tolerance Area’, where no fishing activities are permitted. Nevertheless, illegal fishing continues and the perilous situation of the vaquita led to the World Heritage Site being included on the list of World Heritage in Danger in 2019.

At the end of 2020, an existing programme to remove the illegal gillnets from the Zero Tolerance Area of the UNESCO World Heritage site was unavoidably put on hold, leaving the vaquita at risk. RRF, therefore, has provided emergency funding to enable a local group, Museo de Ballena y Ciencias del Mar, to resume daily net removals in the Zero Tolerance Area during the remainder of the totoaba poaching season (April – May).

This work is a collaborative effort to save the species. A mass transition away from gillnets represents a longer-term solution, and challenge, that various local agencies are working on. At this point in time, failure or delay of net removal from this small critical area of vaquita habitat represents an intolerable risk to vaquita survival, as well as many other marine species which get caught in the illegal nets.

Banner image credit: Paula Olson/ creative commons

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