Despite the federal government compensation plan designed to protect the “vaquita marina”, a two-year, 1 billion peso, (US $69 million) project, mostly in the form of payments to fishermen in San Felipe and Santa Clara in the upper Gulf of California; a new scientific report has revealed that the rate of extinction of this rare porpoise only found in the Sea of Cortés, is higher than previously believed.
It has now been estimated that the mortality rate of the vaquita (phocoena sinus), is actually 42%, a significant increase from the 2013 estimate of 18.5%. At that time the vaquita population was caculated at 97 individuals; now only 50 are believed to remain.
The report, presented by the International Commitee for Vaquita Recovery (CIRVA), collected data through acoustic monitoring of the vaquita’s natural habitat, located close to the port of San Felipe in the state of Baja California; and the coastal towns of Santa Clara and Puerto Peñasco, in the state of Sonora.
The Mexican government has begun implementing the mentioned 1-billion-peso recovery plan as one of several initiatives that have been undertaken in recent years to save the vaquita.
At a recent meeting in San Diego, California, CIRVA commended the measures taken by Mexico, which has banned fishing in the area and expanded the vaquita protection zone.
But the group did ask that the measures be made permanent instead of the two-year program that is being planned. It also asked for more surveillance in the refuge area, particularly at night, as well as supervision of the whole program by a third, independent party.
The disappearance of the vaquita is strongly linked to the illegal fishing of the totoaba, a fish whose swim bladders are considered a delicacy and a status symbol in China, reportedly selling for up to a million pesos each.
The nets used in totoaba fishing are two meters long and weigh 120 kilograms. When a vaquita becomes caught in the net it is unable to swim to the surface to breathe and consequently dies of asphyxia.
CIRVA researcher Jorge Urbán said a new survey of the vaquita protection zone will take place near the end of the year. If the population is confirmed to be only 50 specimens it might have to be considered lost, as it would be difficult for the species to recover.
“Even if current projects are applied thoroughly, I believe it would be difficult for the vaquita to recover.”
Vaquita recovery is even more in doubt when its reproduction cycle is taken into consideration. It mates once every two years, and after a gestation period of 11 months the cows breed a single calf.
For marine biologist Alejandro Olivera of the Mexican Center for Environmental Law the only course of action remaining is to apply CIRVA’s recommendations without delay, and immediately stop the traffic of totoaba in cooperation with the U.S. and Chinese governments.