The world's smallest porpoise, the vaquita, is on the verge of extinction, with only around 60 members surviving off the coast of Mexico. Their decline, driven by illegal fishing, could eliminate the species in just a few years. Image: Paula Olson, NOAA
The situation for the 1.5m porpoises is dire, despite the Mexican Navy's efforts. Vaquita deaths have risen alongside the smuggling of another endangered marine creature, the totoaba. The fish is prized for its bladder, which can fetch upwards of $US10,000 ($13,716) per kilogram in China. Motivated by the high rate of return, international traffickers and local organised crime groups have been cooperating to smuggle the fish across the Pacific.
This arrangement has been a major blow to the vaquitas, whose numbers have long been declining. A group called the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita estimated that there were only 97 vaquitas in 2014, compared to about 570 in 1997.
The earlier declines were attributed to legitimate fishing operations, with the porpoises getting caught in gill nets meant for shrimp, which prompted the Mexican government to create a two-year ban on these nets in the Vaquita habitats, provide $US70 million ($96 million) to compensate the fishermen and push to introduce vaquita-safe nets. These measures have been bypassed by illegal fishing operations.
In a report released Friday by the IUCN SSC Cetacean Specialist Group, a panel of scientists suggested that the Mexican government adopt a permanent ban on gill nets and redouble their efforts to crack down on illegal fishing operations. Mexico's Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, Rafael Pacchiano Alamán, did not comment on whether a permanent ban would be implemented, but he has promised that the government would do more to crack down on totoaba poaching.