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The World’s Smallest Porpoises Might Soon Be Extinct

Just a handful are left.

(Photo: NOAA/Public Domain)

Vaquitas, or “little cows” in Spanish, are the world’s smallest porpoises. 

They’ve been critically endangered for a while, numbering just 100 in 2014. Primarily found in the northern part of the Gulf of California, they’ve been dying off, activists say, because of illegal fishing—through the use of gillnets, specifically, which trap vaquitas, killing them.

The Mexican government said last week that the number of vaquitas had plummeted further, to just 60, according to National Geographic, despite efforts to crack down on gillnets. 

The use of gillnets persists in the vaquitas’ habitat to capture totoaba, a rare marine mammal prized for its bladder, a delicacy which can fetch high prices in Asia. 

Activists, calling for more patrols and enforcement of existing fishing law, said this was probably the last chance for the vaquita. 

“Despite all the best efforts, we are losing the battle to stop totoaba fishing and save the vaquita,” said Omar Vidal, the CEO of the World Wildlife Fund’s Mexico unit. “In addition to a fishing ban, Mexico, the United States, and China need to take urgent and coordinated action to stop the illegal fishing, trafficking and consumption of totoaba.”

They’ve got their work cut out for them. Totoaba bladders can be sold for up to $645,000 in Asian markets, which increasingly get them directly from Mexico. Chinese immigrants discovered totoaba decades ago, believing it to have similar healing properties to giant yellow croaker, whose existence was threatened by overfishing. 

As for the vaquita, though, as Vidal said, “There is no time to wait.”