Although the number of the vaquita is still very small due to the threats it faces, a group of scientists have celebrated the sighting of at least 13 individuals of these cetaceans, the largest population found in the Gulf of California since 2021, when only 8 vaquitas were recorded. This is good news for those working in the conservation and research of this species on the verge of extinction, which suffers the consequences of illegal fishing and the invasion of vessels in its habitat. "It is hopeful for the recovery of the vaquita marina," said María Luisa Albores González, Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources.
The finding is the result of the inquiries of experts from Mexico, the United States and Canada embarked on the Vaquita 2023 Observation Cruise, which with the vessels "Seahorse" and "Mermaid of the Night" toured between May 10 and 27 the so-called Zero Tolerance Zone (ZTC), located in the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve. "These researchers together have 400 years of experience in the observation of marine mammals, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS)," the Ministry of Environment said in a statement.
The researchers were able to obtain during their journey 61 acoustic detections of cetaceans and made 16 sightings, through a method that scientists call "eilicitation". Of the 16 sightings, there were three photographic identifications of the same mother and her calf, while in five of them scientists obtained images of vaquitas with drones. "We estimated that there was a 76% probability that the total number of animals sighted, including one to two offspring, was between 10 and 13 individuals," the scientists reported after concluding the exploration. This result, they added, considers "the minimum number of vaquitas left in the current population."
Experts believe that 98.6% of the population of this species has been lost. The main threat is illegal fishing nets in the Gulf of California area, where vessels go inside to catch fish species that have a high market value, such as the totoaba, also endangered. This fish is in great demand in China, where you can pay up to $ 45,000 for a kilo of totoaba. Vaquitas also suffer from the constant presence of boats in the area, against which they are hit and killed.
Mexican environmental authorities have reported that they have managed to reduce the presence of illegal fishermen in the area thanks to Navy patrol work, with "the apparent decrease of more than 90% in the presence of pangas and gillnets within the ZTC," according to a report presented by the experts who participated in the expedition. "It is probably the most significant step taken to date to save the species," they said.
The vaquita is the most endangered marine mammal in the world. The reduction in the population of this species has occurred alarmingly: in 1997 there were almost 600 vaquitas, in 2016 there were 60, until at least the 13 specimens found by experts this spring. Due to the threat of extinction, scientists, academics, environmentalists and activists have demanded that the Mexican government take tougher measures to protect the species. Even the environmental commission of the T-MEC has asked to investigate Mexico for the lack of protection of the vaquita and has demanded clarification why the authorities have not been able to stop illegal fishing in the area of refuge of the cetacean.
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