Big news for a little porpoise.
Something big just happened for the tiny vaquita porpoise at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) meeting. The diminutive porpoise was the subject of a resolution, passed by all the countries present, urging concerted international cooperation to save the species from extinction.
The IWC was set up by and for countries catching whales. Over the years it has turned into a more conservation-focussed forum, but that has been a long, slow struggle. Indeed some countries are still adamant that only the ‘great’ (which mostly means ‘big’) whales and whether they should be hunted is the IWC’s raison d’etre. The idea of what are and aren’t big or small whales is complicated, some great whales are smaller than those considered small, and sadly these complications have often been a barrier to discussing real conservation needs of things like dolphins and porpoises.
The vaquita’s tale is a sad one. It’s now critically endangered in its tiny
home territory in the Gulf of California. Scientists best estimates are that
only around 60 of these animals still exist, down from an estimated 100 just
two years ago.
Vaquita are not directly hunted, instead they are being caught and killed in fishing nets, ironically set for another endangered species – the totoaba fish. Totoaba are almost the same size as the little porpoise, so the nets catch and kill vaquita, trapped under water and unable to come to the surface to breathe.
This accidental killing in fishing gear is called ‘bycatch’, and it’s believed to be killing 300 thousand whales, dolphins and porpoises globally every year. That’s a massive number, but when it comes to the critically-endangered vaquita, just a few dead animals make a massive difference to the species survival.
Since 2013 there has been a huge demand for the totoaba, as its swim bladder has become sought after in the Chinese market. This has led to an increase in illegal fishing for totoaba, using indiscriminate gillnets.
Mexico has taken action to ban gillnet fishing – but the illegal trade still
persists, and it’s driving two species towards extinction.
That’s why the vulnerable vaquita is centre stage in the IWC meeting, as well as being an issue for governments discussing international trade recently too.
Today’s agreement by governments urged Mexico and the international community to work together to save the vaquita from imminent extinction by permanently banning gillnet fishing from the vaquita’s habitat, working together to stop the illicit totoaba trade, and providing sustainable alternatives to local fishermen in the Gulf of California.
Of course it is desperately sad that the vaquita is so endangered, and that the plight of this tiny porpoise has become such an urgent conservation emergency – but it’s big news that the international community has committed to working together to save the species.
Can the vaquita be saved? We think so and we really hope so. There are a lot of organisations and individuals working together to try and make sure it does.
The world’s whales, dolphins and porpoises face a whole host of threats. Vaquita are the most at risk, but by no means the only species in danger. The IWC needs to focus more on conservation and make sure species like the vaquita don’t disappear forever on its watch (a lesson we should have learned from the baiji).
Perhaps this week’s decision by governments at the International Whaling Commision marks a turning point both for the organisation, and the precious precarious vaquita too.