Nine vaquita marinas – one of the world’s smallest and rarest marine mammals- were sighted last week by a team from Mexico’s Environmental Secretariat in the Upper Gulf of California, the species’ only home. With only as few as 150 vaquitas left in the world, this is indeed a special occasion and reason to celebrate. The recent sighting highlights the importance of years of hard work and collaboration to save the vaquita by the Mexican government, local communities and NGOs. It is also a call to action to continue to uphold and broaden protections for this unique marine mammal.
Harmful fishing practices and shrimp trawling in the Upper Gulf pushed the vaquita dangerously close to extinction. NGOs, including NRDC, worked for years with local communities, fishing companies and the Mexican government to eliminate those threats from the vaquita’s habitat. A Vaquita Refuge was established in 2005, and in 2008 the government began to monitor and enforce the Refuge as a no-fishing zone. According to the Mexican government, conservation efforts have so far led to the removal of 247 fishing boats and 329 fishing permits from vaquita habitat.
Yet despite years of conservation work to protect the vaquita, this famously elusive species has been sighted by only a few scientists and fishermen since its discovery in 1958. In fact, until about two years ago, the only vaquita images that existed were of animals that had drowned entangled in shrimp and fishing nets – the primary threat to the species. These stark images of lifeless vaquitas underscored the dire predicament of the species. But finally, in October 2008, a team of scientists and conservationists captured the first video and photograph images of live vaquitas, highlighting how the years of conservation efforts had been well worth it.
Video footage: Christ Johnson - earthOcean
During this most recent sighting, the nine vaquitas put on quite a show. Three vaquita pods swam and fed for over two hours near the marine refuge created to protect them – as if thanking the government team charged with their protection. Even more encouragingly, the groups included one calf and three juveniles, another hopeful sign that the years of work with local fishing communities are indeed helping to prevent the vaquita’s numbers from plummeting further.
As Juan Rafael Elvira Quesada, Mexico’s Secretary of the Environment, noted, the sighting is an incentive to continue and strengthen vaquita conservation programs. Knowing how rare and elusive the vaquita is we’ll probably have to again wait for quite some time before we have new pictures or video. But as long as protections for the species continue to be enforced and expanded I’m sure we’ll eventually have even more amazing vaquita sightings to celebrate.