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The World Heritage Committee on 3rd July 2019 in Baju, Azerbaijan, followed the IUCN’s advice to list Mexico’s Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California as a World Heritage site in danger. The site’s population of vaquitas – the world’s smallest and most endangered species of porpoise – has been decimated due to the illegal trade of marine products, with possibly as few as 10 individuals left.

The Vaquita Porpoise the world’s smallest cetacean, is found only in the northernmost tip of the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez. It is estimated that there are fewer than 10 individuals of this beautiful species remaining in the sea today according to the IUCN. There are several agencies fighting to restore the vaquita population from the brink of extinction.

In recent years, illegal fishing activities within the Gulf of California have had devastating impacts on its unique marine wildlife, pushing the vaquita to the brink of extinction. The porpoise gets entangled in gillnets used illegally to fish another Critically Endangered species, like the Totoaba fish, whose swim bladder fetches high prices in Asian markets.

“It is an alarming indicator of the severity of illegal wildlife trade that we may soon witness the extinction of such an iconic species as the vaquita – within the supposed safety of a World Heritage site,” says Peter Shadie, Director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme. “Mexico’s constructive approach to the Gulf of California’s danger-listing will help mobilise action to stop this threat before it depletes more of our precious marine heritage, and IUCN stands ready to support its efforts.”

The Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California became a World Heritage site in 2005 for its exceptional marine biodiversity. Composed of 244 islands, islets and coastal areas in north-eastern Mexico, the site boasts 39% of marine mammal species and a third of cetacean species in the world. The Upper Gulf of California is the only place on Earth where the vaquita is found.

In 2017, the population of vaquitas had dramatically declined from some 300 at the time of inscription to an estimated 30 animals. Attempts to breed vaquitas were quickly abandoned as the porpoise proved highly susceptible to captivity-related stress.

An international committee for vaquita recovery estimated that 10 vaquitas remained in the summer of 2018 – prior to the current fishing season. High levels of illegal fishing for totoaba continued and even escalated in 2018 and 2019 in the Upper Gulf of California, including in the small area where the few vaquitas remain.

Following two recent missions and regular monitoring, IUCN and UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre concluded that the threat of illegal fishing on the Gulf of California’s marine life justified the site’s inclusion on the List of World Heritage in Danger. The World Heritage Committee today adopted this advice.

As advised by IUCN, Mexico must now undertake any means necessary to safeguard the remaining vaquitas and develop longer-term solutions to ensure sustainable livelihoods for local communities in the Gulf of California, including through improved sustainable fishing practices.

The List of World Heritage in Danger is a mechanism designed to facilitate emergency conservation action and international assistance to support severely threatened World Heritage sites.

Interesting facts about the Vaquita:

> The vaquita is the most endangered marine mammal in the world.

> Estimates based on acoustic research indicate that there are less than 60 vaquita remaining.

> Of the 30 individuals, it is estimated that less than half are reproductive age females.

> The vaquita inhabit only the waters of the upper Gulf of California.

> The vaquita population has decreased by 18.5% per year in recent years.

> The government of Mexico, determined to prevent the vaquita’s extinction, enacted a two-year

> moratorium on fishing with gillnets in the vaquita’s habitat.

> The vaquita is also known as the “smiley panda of the sea” because of the dark circles around its eyes and mouth.

> Vaquita have a comparatively short lifespan of approximately 20 years compared to other porpoises and have never been held in captivity. With a slower rate of reproduction than that of other porpoises – they birth up to only one calf every two years – these petite porpoises are being wiped out faster than they can reproduce.

The vaquita has been listed as critically endangered since 1996. Scientists have been warning for nearly 20 years that the only way to save the vaquita is to eliminate the presence of gillnets in the only region that this species calls home.

Dr. Marianne Furtado de Nazareth is Freelance Science and Environment journalist. She is also the Former Assistant Editor The Deccan Herald, and adjunct faculty Mount Carmel’s College for Women, Bangalore.


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