Mexico City, Mexico: The world’s most endangered marine mammal, the vaquita, remains under threat, despite the extension of a temporary ban on gillnets in the Upper Gulf of California, announced yesterday by the Government of Mexico. WWF believes the current ban will not be enough to protect the species and its unique habitat.
The elusive vaquita, nicknamed the ‘panda of the sea’ due to its distinctive markings, is teetering on the brink of extinction with an estimated 30 or fewer individuals remaining. Its population has been decimated in recent years by illegal gillnet fishing, the only known threat to the species in its habitat.
WWF stresses that a permanent and properly enforced ban, accompanied by a comprehensive vaquita recovery strategy, that supports local fishermen in the use of vaquita-safe alternative fishing gear, is the only way to save the vaquita from extinction in the wild. Recovery efforts must urgently protect the vaquita’s habitat by removing all gillnets and focusing on community support and engagement. Despite some efforts by the Mexican government, WWF notes that, to date, it has been unable to demonstrate effective enforcement of the previous temporary ban, resulting in illegal gillnet fishing continuing unabated, in part due to the lack of legal and sustainable fishing alternatives for local fishermen. Almost half of the remaining vaquita population was lost between 2015 and 20161.
“We have seen vaquita numbers continue to plummet over the last two years because the existing ban was not sufficiently enforced and gillnets continue to threaten the Upper Gulf of California. This extension will not be enough to save the vaquita and its valuable habitat. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has publicly stated his commitment to saving the vaquita and to implementing a permanent gillnet ban. We urge him to take the actions needed to deliver on his promise”, said Jorge Rickards, acting CEO, WWF-Mexico. “The vaquita has no more time left. It needs action today.”
An analysis published by WWF this month set out a critical path for saving the vaquita and protecting the Gulf of California from irreversible damage. A permanent ban was found as vital to protecting the species and ensuring fisheries and conservation sectors would move forward in developing vaquita-safe fishing gear and techniques.
“To have real impact, a permanent gillnet ban must be urgently expedited and fully enforced, and local fishermen must be supported in the use of alternative profitable fishing gear. The reality is that if the government is not able to ensure compliance and community engagement, the last vaquita could drown in an illegal gillnet before the end of the year,” added Rickards.
Illegal gillnet fishing in the Gulf of California is largely driven by demand for the swim bladder of another critically endangered species endemic to the region, the totoaba. With the majority of totoaba swim bladders following an illegal trade route from Mexico through the United States to China, where they are considered to have medicinal properties, WWF urges the U.S. and Chinese governments to collaborate with Mexico to intercept and halt the illegal transport and sale of totoaba products.
“Vaquita are collateral damage of the global wildlife crime epidemic, plummeting toward extinction because of an illegal trade that has nothing to do with them,” said Leigh Henry, Senior Policy Advisor at WWF-US. “Mexico must commit to a permanent gillnet ban, and that commitment must be matched by collective action across borders. Mexico, the U.S. and China need to act immediately and decisively to kill the trade that’s killing the vaquita.”
One of the most biologically unique marine regions on earth, the Gulf of California has been recognized as a World Heritage site since 2005. Its long-term health is vital to both marine species and the local economy, which is heavily dependent on fishing.
WWF highlights that the critical status of the vaquita population has previously been outlined by UNESCO as a danger to the World Heritage site which could lead to the inscription of the site on the List of World Heritage in Danger in 2017. With the draft for 2017 being made public tomorrow, 2 June, WWF calls on the Mexican government to immediately implement the measures outlined above.
“The Government of Mexico needs to demonstrate that the Gulf of California does not deserve to be on the in danger list by taking further action immediately to secure the long-term future of the vaquita, its habitat and the local communities,” said Rickards.
Notes to Editors:
1Based on analysis of data from the 2016 Acoustic Monitoring Program.
Full WWF Analysis Vanishing vaquita: Saving the world’s most endangered marine mammal and photos and videos for use along with copyright information are available for download here.
On 9 May, WWF launched an e-action inviting individuals worldwide to write to President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico to urge immediate action to protect rare wildlife like the vaquita and local livelihoods in the Gulf of California World Heritage site. Over 177,000 people have joined the e-action to date.