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Mexico searches for the world’s most endangered porpoises


MEXICO CITY (AP) — Mexican officials and the conservation organization Sea Shepherd said Monday experts will depart in two ships to locate the few remaining vaquita marina, the world’s most endangered marine mammal.

Mexico’s environment minister said experts from the United States, Canada and Mexico will use binoculars, scopes and acoustic monitors to pinpoint the location of the tiny, elusive porpoises. The species cannot be caught, kept or bred in captivity.

The journey will run from May 10 to May 27 in the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of ​​Cortez, the only place where the vaquita lives. The group will travel in a Sea Shepherd ship and a Mexican boat to try and see vaquitas; Only eight of the creatures are believed to remain.

Illegal gillnets catch traps and kill the vaquita. Fishermen cast their nets to catch totoaba, a fish whose swim bladder is considered a delicacy in China and can fetch thousands of dollars per pound (kilogram).

Sea Shepherd is working with the Mexican Navy in the Gulf to deter illegal fishing in the only area where vaquitas were last seen. The area is known as the ‘zero-tolerance’ zone and no fishing is allowed there. However, illegal fishing boats are regularly seen there, which has prevented Mexico from fully stopping them.

Sea Shepherd chairman Pritam Singh said a combination of patrols and the Mexican Navy’s plan to sink concrete blocks with hooks to catch illegal nets will cut the number of hours fishing boats spend in the restricted zone by 79% by 2022 reduced compared to the previous year.

Singh said, “The past 18 months have been incredibly impressive and encouraging,” noting that “the road to saving this species is long.”

The last sighting expedition in 2021 yielded likely sightings of between 5 and 13 vaquitas, a decrease from the previous survey in 2019. The porpoises are so small and so elusive, and usually seen from so far away, that it is difficult to see for sure if observers see a vaquita, how many they have seen or if they have seen the same animal twice.

But illegal fishing itself has hindered population calculations in the past.

According to an expert report published in 2022, both the 2019 and 2021 surveys were “hampered by the presence of many illegal gillnet fishing boats in the water. Some areas could not be surveyed at all on some days due to the density of illegal fishing.”

Government conservation efforts have been uneven at best, often meeting violent opposition from local fishermen as well.

The government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has largely refused to spend money to compensate fishermen for staying out of the vaquita refuge and stopping using gillnets, or monitoring their presence or the areas from which they launch.

Joanna Swanson

Joanna Swanson is Europe correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation based in Brussels covering politics, culture, business, climate change, society, economies and inclusive tech. With specific focus in breaking news, she has covered some of the world's most significant stories.