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Porpoise, Endangered: Vaquita Down to 50?

Jun 22, 2015 06:30 PM EDT
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At least 13 killed during prison fight in northern Mexico

The world's smallest porpoise, the vaquita, has declined in numbers by more than 40 percent in one year; consequently, around 50 of the cetaceans likely remain on Earth, according to a recent report by the International Whaling Commission

While the vaquita population has been declining for decades, a year ago an international team of scientists concluded that fewer than 100 animals remained.

"It's horrifying to witness, in real time, the extinction of an animal right in front of our eyes," said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a release. "Without drastic help, vaquitas could vanish completely in just a few years. We need the world to wake up and help save these incredible porpoises."

Vaquitas are found only in Mexico's northern Gulf of California, which teems with biodiversity. The porpoises, however, are threatened by fishing gear and often become entangled in shrimp nets or illegal gillnets set for totoaba, an endangered fish.  The totoaba's swim bladder is illegally exported to Asia for soup and traditional medicine treatments.

In April, Mexico announced a two-year ban on most gillnets in the northern Gulf of California, but scientists feel that only a permanent ban on gillnets and better enforcement will save the vaquita, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council's update.

Conservation groups have requested that the Obama administration impose trade sanctions against Mexico to stop the illegal totoaba fishery. This could include a boycott of shrimp from Mexico, according to the release from the Center for Biological Diversity.

U.S. and Mexican scientists will begin a new population survey for vaquita in September, around the time that fishing activity, along with vaquita mortality, is at its highest. 

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