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Bycatch Threatens Several Marine Animals; New Laws Provide Hope For Rare Vaquitas Porpoise

Dec 18, 2015 01:10 PM EST

Often times, marine animals accidentally get swept up in large fishing nets that are meant to catch small commercial crustaceans and fish. This has come to be known as "bycatch," and accidental or not, it threatens extiction for several species of dolphins and porpoises, researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reveal in a new study. 

For example, the critically endangered porpoise known as the vaquita is now considered the rarest marine mammal species on the planet because of drastic population declines related to bycatch. Scientists say fewer than 100 vaquitas remain in their range in the northern Gulf of California and  Mexico, according to a news release. The NOAA's findings were recently presented at the Society of Marine Mammalogy's 21st biennial conference in San Francisco.

To mitigate the effects of bycatch, Mexican authorities have placed an emergency two-year ban on gillnetting, a fishing method in which a wall of netting hangs in the water column and traps fish. Mexican officials including President Enrique Peña Nieto, Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, Rafael Pacchiano, top Mexican biologists, economists and fishermen were recently recognized for their efforts and received the Society of Marine Mammalogy's first-ever Conservation Merit Prize. The prize will help local fishermen transition to using fish-friendly gear in the hopes that sustainable fishing will allow threatened species the time to recover. 

"This is the first large-scale gillnet ban to save a species from extinction, and includes provisions for the development of alternative fishing gear to replace gillnets," said Barbara Taylor, chair of the Society's Conservation Committee, who recently returned from more than two months aboard a research ship surveying the northern Gulf of California for vaquita. "We have great hope that this will be the model that shows the world it is truly possible to bring a species back from the brink of extinction."

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