The first extinction warning was issued in 70 years for the rarest marine mammal on earth.
Extinction is becoming a real threat facing countless creatures across the animal kingdom. Famously, only an estimated 10 vaquitas are left in the Gulf of California, Mexico. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has issued its first extinction warning in its 70-year history to spur action to help the smallest and most endangered marine mammals highest extinction in the world.
Vaquitas are the smallest living cetaceans, ranging from 1.2 to 1.5 meters (4-5 feet). They are only found in the Gulf of California, and there are thought to be only 10 left. This population decline is because fishermen use gill nets, specialized flat nets used to illegally hunt totoaba fish, which are sold on the lucrative traditional Chinese medicine black market.
Increasingly desperate efforts to save the animals from extinction have included the government teaming up with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Foundation to commit to preserving their ecosystem, launching naval training” to locate them and various efforts to capture and move them to specially protected undersea refuges to begin a captive breeding program, which has must be abandoned following the death of a captured female.
Although there is a very real possibility that this smallest of marine mammals will become extinct in our time, plans put forward by the Mexican navy attempted to create a zero-tolerance zone (ZTA ) using 193 concrete blocks to prevent the use of fishing nets. Theoretically, this measure would have reduced gill nets in this area by 90% but may have shifted the problem to the edge of the ZTA.
In more positive news, scientists also observed similar numbers of vaquitas in May 2023, as seen in 2021 and 2019 near San Felipe, Mexico. All animals, including a newborn calf, were eating and drinking and appeared to be in good health.
IWC calls for a 100% ban on gillnet fishing and safe, sustainable alternatives to protect the livelihoods of fishing communities and give hope for recovery for these animals.