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Scientists make shocking discovery that provides hope for one of the world's most endangered species: 'Encouraging news'

"Protection needs to be expanded."

Rare vaquitas spotted in Mexico

Photo Credit: iStock

A small dark fin raised above Mexican waters may signal hope for the survival of a species.

The vaquita, a 5-foot-long porpoise known as Earth's smallest and most endangered whale, surfaced in limited numbers for researchers surveying the Gulf of California this May. The sightings suggest the success of recent conservation work to give vaquitas a fighting chance.

Scientists searched for two weeks and found 10-13 vaquitas, including at least one calf. The expedition was the joint effort of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the Mexican government.

The sightings are precious because researchers feared that vaquitas would soon be extinct, given that they had a 45% annual population decline estimated in 2018, as survey leader Barbara Taylor wrote for the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Species such as the vaquita have experienced declines and extinctions due to activities such as overfishing and habitat changes caused by our planet's overheating. If the surprisingly tenacious vaquita holds on, its story could be an island of hope in a sea of concern.

Vaquitas only live in the uppermost reaches of the Gulf of California and can't survive being captured, held, or bred in captivity, reports Euronews. A 2017 effort to rescue the species in this way led to the death of one of the rare creatures, The New York Times reports.

The porpoises are endangered due to the devastating uses of gillnet fishing. Fishing boats drape curtainlike nets to snag fish that include the giant totoaba. Totoaba is an endangered species hunted for its bladders, a lucrative delicacy in Asia, according to Euronews.

Vaquitas, which must surface to breathe, become entangled in nets and drown alongside intended catch, sea turtles, and other organisms. 

From an estimated population of 700 in 1993, vaquitas dropped to around 30 in 2016. The Mexican government established a Zero Tolerance Area (ZTA) in 2020, where gillnetting is prohibited. But enforcement has been inconsistent.

The good news is that recent measures have shown promise. In 2022, the Mexican Navy sank concrete blocks with 3-meter-tall hooks in the ZTA to wreck gillnets placed there illegally.

Along with Sea Shepherd, the Mexican Navy began patrolling regularly. This led to an estimated 90% decrease in gillnetting in the zone — heralded by conservationists as a major achievement.

"This is the most encouraging news ever of human intervention to save vaquitas," Taylor and colleagues concluded their report. "The results of the May 2023 survey provide clear evidence that this type of protection needs to be expanded."

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