Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Captive breeding is a final roll of the dice for the vaquita

9 May 2017

By Olive Heffernan

Yet another vaquita has turned up dead in recent weeks, making one less of the small, smiley-faced porpoise that is the world’s most endangered cetacean.

Estimated to number as few as 30 earlier this year, this endearing species has become a poster child for conservation – not least because its decline has been obvious for decades, yet all attempts to save it so far have failed.

In a last-ditch attempt to avoid extinction, scientists are now preparing to capture some of the remaining vaquitas and breed them in captivity. This high-risk move may appear extreme, but further losses are reinforcing the need for urgent action: another four have washed up dead so far this year, after getting entangled in fishing nets.

The continued toll seems astonishing given that the vaquita’s home in the upper Gulf of California, just off north-west Mexico, has been protected as a UNESCO biosphere reserve since 1993, when there were around 600 of the mammals left. Despite that, the area continues to be plundered by both legal and illegal fishing.

The biggest problem is poachers using gill nets, which are particularly dangerous for vaquitas. The poachers illegally fish in the reserve for totoaba, a large endangered species whose swim bladder is known as “aquatic cocaine” – fetching tens of thousands of dollars in China for its purported, though unproven, health benefits.

But Mexican officials have consistently ignored scientific advice to permanently prohibit all gill nets in the porpoise’s home waters. Instead, they have opted for short-term measures, such as a two-year emergency ban on their use that ends this month.

These efforts, along with the wider conservation campaign, backed by the likes of Miley Cyrus and Leonardo DiCaprio, have not nearly been enough.


Continued

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