By Simon Allan and Ellie Marsh
A little known marine mammal found in northwest Mexico has been gaining global press attention for weeks now – and for good reason. The vaquita – a small porpoise known as the “panda of the sea” due to the distinctive black circles around its eyes – is on the verge of extinction. With less than 30 vaquitas left in the wild, a new Dalberg authored report for WWF finds that the vaquita could become extinct by the middle of 2018, without immediate action to curb illegal fishing and wildlife trafficking.
The vaquita population has been decimated in recent years, falling by 90% since 2011. The vaquitas’ decline has been accelerated by the world’s growing demand for fish which has led to increased use of gillnets, among other unsustainable and often illegal fishing practices. Gillnets, which are hung vertically in the sea to catch fish by their gills, have been adopted by fishers to increase their catch size. But gillnets and associated practices hugely increase the unintentional bycatch of other species. In particular, the vaquita has been a bycatch victim of illegal fishing for totoaba – a fish whose swim bladder is highly prized in Asian markets not only for traditional medicine but also as a Chinese delicacy. Despite gillnets being temporarily banned in Mexico in 2015, the decline of the vaquita has continued due to illegal fishing.