A rare and endangered porpoise could go extinct in four years without stepped-up enforcement measures, new research suggests.
Vaquita, a rare breed of porpoise that live off the coast of Mexico, have been dying in droves because the animals are getting caught in fishing nets. Now, a new study shows that governments are doing little to protect the endangered marine mammals against illegal fishing nets.
The vaquita, or Phocoena sinus, can be found in the Gulf of California, off the coast of Mexico. The animals have winsome faces with a distinctive look.
“They look like they’re wearing dark lipstick and mascara,” said Rebecca Lent, executive director of the Marine Mammal Commission, an independent federal agency that aims to protect and conserve marine mammals.
The smallest type of porpoise, the vaquita reaches just 4 to 5 feet in length and is typically difficult to spot.
“These vaquita porpoises are very shy. They hardly ever appear,” Lent told Live Science. “Most of the ones we have are ones that came up dead in fishing nets.”
Considered to be a critically endangered porpoise, conditions are only getting worse, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. A July 2014 report used the animals’ acoustic calls to estimate that fewer than 100 vaquita’s still live in the wild. The cetaceans have a baby just once every other year, and the most recent report suggest the population has dropped 18.5% just in the last year.
The main culprit behind the demise of vaquita’s is the rise of illegal fishing, according to the report. Boats hunting for an endangered fish known as the totoaba, prized in China for the supposed medicinal properties of its swim bladder, have taken to using gill nets, a type of vertical net that traps fish by their gills.
“It’s essentially a wall across the environment,” said Peter Thomas, International and Policy Program director for the Marine Mammal Commission “It’s not visible to the vaquita,” Thomas told Live Science. As a result, the vaquita’s get entangled in these nets.
“We’re really down to the wire now” to save the vaquita, Lent told Live Science. “We really only have a couple of years.”