World's Smallest Porpoise Nears Extinction

Science News Endangered Species
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World's Smallest Porpoise Nears Extinction

The vaquita, a small porpoise found in the Gulf of California, is currently the most endangered marine mammal in the world.

A recent report by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) claims that the vaquita population is now down to a measly 30 individuals. According to CIRVA, nearly half of the world’s vaquita population was lost between 2015 and 2016.

Illegal gillnets are the number one threat facing vaquitas. Gillnets are used to capture small marine animals including another endangered species, the totoaba fish. This fish is known for its highly-valued swim bladder which is thought to help cure a variety of ailments and has sold on the black market for up to $100,000.

The market for totoaba fish has grown over the years and with it, so has the danger to vaquitas. When the small porpoises become tangled in the gillnets, they ultimately drown.

“The situation is completely out of control,” CIRVA member Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho told Science magazine.

Attempts to create alternative gillnets that allow vaquitas to escape have proven unsuccessful due to resistance and suspected sabotage from totoaba fishermen.

In order to try and save the vaquita species, scientists plan to capture an unspecified number of the small porpoises in October 2017. The recovery team will utilize dolphins from the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program to help locate the vaquitas without scaring them away.

The capture and breeding plan has been met with controversy because of the fact that vaquitas have never been held in captivity. This has led to fear that the animals could die during the process implemented to prevent them from going extinct.

Top Photo by Paula Olson, CC0 1.0

Chamberlain Smith is a freelance writer based in Athens, Georgia.