The vaquita is the smallest porpoise species in the world, reaching a maximum length of just 1.5 metres, and is the only cetacean endemic to Mexico, being found only in the upper Gulf of California.
Sadly, it also has the unfortunate distinction of being the most threatened marine mammal. Classified as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the vaquita is struggling for survival as a result of becoming entangled in gill nets and trawl nets cast by commercial and artisanal fisheries to catch shrimps and fish, including sharks. It is estimated that between 39 and 84 vaquitas drown as bycatch every year, which is a worryingly high number given that, in 2007, only an estimated 150 individuals of this species remained.
Fortunately, according to WWF-Mexico, positive action is now being taken to promote sustainable fisheries in the vaquita’s range, in measures which will benefit the species as well as fishermen and their families. A new regulation will establish shrimping standards in Mexico, and will define the types of fishing gear permitted in different zones of the country.
An official norm
The new regulation, known as an ‘official norm’, has come into play as a result of a WWF petition to Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto. Signed by an impressive 38,000 people from 127 countries, the petition requested that measures be established to protect the vaquita whilst also ensuring that fishermen can continue to earn a living through sustainable fishing.
“With this norm, drift gillnets – one of the nets used in artisanal shrimping operations in which vaquitas die incidentally – will be gradually substituted, during a three year period, for selective fishing gears that do not kill this porpoise, but that allow fishers to keep earning their livelihoods,” said Omar Vidal, WWF-Mexico’s Director General.
“The effective application of the norm requires the participation and commitment of local fishermen. The optimal use of the net requires the development of particular skills; therefore, the support of the government and other organizations through training and temporary compensation programs will be essential along the fisher’s learning curve.”
This positive action represents a major opportunity to promote sustainable fisheries in the Gulf of California region, whilst simultaneously protecting an endemic threatened species.
View more photos of the vaquita on ARKive.