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Vaquitas Spotted! Critically Endangered Porpoises Persevere

Oct 09, 2015 10:07 AM EDT

A newly launched search in Mexico's Sea of Cortez has reportedly found several vaquita marina porpoises, one of the most critically endangered animals in the world. This reassures conservationists that the vaquita isn't extinct yet. However, that doesn't mean the tiny animals are in good shape.

The vaquita has never exactly been an animal with huge numbers. The world's smallest and rarest marine mammal, they live out their lives - often unnoticed - in the same Mexican waters frequented by commercial fishermen. Unfortunately, this makes them an exceptionally vulnerable species, impacted by human activity even more than most. According to the IUCN's Species Survival Commission (SSC) Cetacean Specialist Group (CSG), the vaquitas numbered anywhere between 600 and 800 in the 1990s. However, they had recently disappeared so completely that many experts thought them extinct.

That's why the NOAA is reporting the recent sighting of two (possibly three) of the elusive porpoises with "jubilation and relief." (Scroll to read on...)

Admittedly, NOAA Southwest Fisheries scientists working with the Mexican government knew they were in for good news soon after their collaborative search for the vaquitas was launched on Sept 26. The distinct calls of the tiny porpoises (~5ft) were picked up by specialized equipment early in the expedition.

"We knew vaquitas remained because we are hearing them, but seeing them today is a great relief," Mexican Chief Scientist Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho said in a statement on Saturday (Oct 3).

The porpoises were "spotted swimming in calm waters near the fishing village of San Felipe, Baja California."

 "I did not want to experience another extinction," added US chief scientist Barbara Taylor, who had the unfortunate experience of finding no evidence of the likely-extinct Yangze River dolphin, or baiji, in 2006.

"I think, most of us who were on that [expedition] are still coming to grips with this whole idea of extinction," Robert Pitman, a fisheries scientist who accompanied Taylor, said in the poignant film "Saving the Desert Porpoise," back in 2013.

With the baiji gone, Pitman said we should be looking to the vaquita, whose population may not be even total past 50 porpoises. (Scroll to read on...)

"It's getting trapped in fishermen's nets just like the baiji," he explained. "if nothing is done in the next few years, the vaquita is going to go instinct also."

According to countless survey's the largest threat to vaquitas is accidental entanglement in gillnets. Illegal fishing for the Totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), a large and endangered fish, whose bladder is a highly prized commodity on the Chinese market, has long been named a primary cause of both the vaquitas' and Totoba's population plight.

"Extinction will occur within the next few years unless gillnet fishing is completely suspended... without delay," Justin Cooke, an official IUCN Observer, said in a 2014 report. "Because of the high‐value illegal international trade in Totoaba, the main target of part of the gillnet fishery, strict enforcement is required."

The good news is that the Mexican government is working to halt the vaquitas' still-looming extinction. Even during these hard economic times, Mexico is committing $37 million each year towards a navy program with will work to enforce a new gillnet ban.

Visual confirmation that the vaquitas are still around simply reaffirms this program's purpose and keeps hope alive. It is expected to finally launch this April.

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