Vaquita is a shy marine mammal that looks a bit like the dolphin. It is so shy that people did not know its existence until 1958. It never met anyone even though it was not too far away. And it has never been “in abundance.” But now, the smallest marine mammal, with its characteristic dark circles around the eyes, is in immediate danger. There are only 60 in the Gulf of Mexico, the only area in the world where she lives.
Vaquita has a smaller muzzle, flat teeth, and is smaller than her “cousins”, dolphins. “Little cow” means its name, and it was given to it by local fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico. Norris and Farland were recognized by scientists in 1958. Today, an expert in vaquita, Armando Légoreta, from the Mexican National Ecology Institute, explains what it is, why it is in danger, and what to do to save that shy mammal.
“It’s a very shy, elusive thing. To watch it we need large oceanographic boats with very specialized equipment so that we can see them from afar. Fortunately, like all of its relatives, it produces audio signals in the form of clicks. They use these high-frequency signals to orientate, to locate their prey and to communicate. Therefore, special electronic equipment was created to recognize the sounds and be stored for analysis. Since 1997, we have been using these acoustic methods to record their population. Between 1997 and 2007, we found a 58% reduction in the sounds emitted. We assume that the decrease was proportional to the decrease in their population. Optical data over the same period has confirmed the conclusion. The main reason that leads them to extinction is their captivity in large nets. This has been the case since the 1940s. The vaquita was threatened by the nets that the fishermen threw to catch shrimps and small fish. But in recent years, the situation has deteriorated dramatically due to the illegal fishing of another fish endemic to the region, called totoaba”
While the vaquita never leaves the Sea of Cortez, the threats to its existence extend far beyond the 62,000-sq-mile body of water, separating the Baja California peninsula from mainland Mexico. Saving the tiny porpoise will require addressing deep-rooted problems in Mexico and beyond, including “organized crime and internal migration, Mexico’s troubled law enforcement sector, international smuggling networks and rising demand for animal parts for use in traditional Chinese medicine,” according to Vanda Felbab-Brown, a Brookings Institution fellow, who is part of a working group to preserve the porpoise. Those issues add up and are why numerous efforts to curb illegal fishing in Mexico in the past have all withered on the vine.
The Mexican Government has attempted to protect the animal, but its policies have utterly failed due to incompetence: the vaquita’s numbers have continued to dwindle in recent years, and are now down to 30. Authorities have been so far unable—or unwilling—to enforce rules barring practices that endanger the vaquita, and mismanaged programs designed to prevent those practices.
Actor Leonardo Di Caprio has made his life purpose the protection of vaquita
In May, he had asked his millions of followers on Twitter and Instagram to sign a request to ask the President of Mexico to do more to protect the very rare marine mammal.200,000 signatures have been gathered and led the Mexican government to take the decision for drastic measures.
Di Caprio met the Mexican president Enrique Pena Nieto and managed to get the public commitment to do everything to save the endangered mammal.
In June, an agreement signed by the Government of Mexico, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and the Carlos Slim Foundation to support emergency measures to conserve the critically endangered vaquita porpoise and the Upper Gulf of California ecosystem. The agreement includes a permanent ban on gillnets by Mexico and the retrieval of all abandoned or lost “ghost” nets within vaquita habitat, as well as the development of new fishing gear and techniques to allow local communities to resume legal, sustainable fishing activities.
The deal was an occasion for celebrations
Greenpeace, the Center for Biological Diversity and Comarino announced that they considered the agreement reached between the Mexican government, Carlos Slim and Leonardo DiCaprio one that only expresses good intentions “Great news! As of today, gillnets are permanently banned in the Upper Gulf of California giving hope to #SaveTheVaquita and its habitat! We look forward to the Mexican government turning other commitments into actions, including better enforcement of the gillnet ban and development of the vaquita-safe fishing gear”, was written on WWF’s facebook page.
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