Vancouver Island-based marine zoologist helps monitor endangered porpoise near Mexico

Vancouver Island-based marine zoologist helps monitor endangered porpoise near Mexico

The world’s most endangered marine mammal, a small porpoise called vaquita, is holding on to existence by a thread, but a new survey finds conservation measures are making a difference.

In May, an international team of scientists joined the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to survey and monitor an area in the Gulf of California, off the coast of Mexico, to see how the vaquita population was doing.

Dr. Anna Hall, a Vancouver Island-based marine zoologist, was a part of the team and told CHEK News it was an amazing experience.

“My specialty are porpoises, and I would do anything to help the survival of this species,” Hall said.

The vaquita population has rapidly declined over the years due to illegal totoaba fishing. Totoaba is a fish that’s being caught in gill nets and sold on the black market for its swim bladder.

Hall said the totoaba swim bladder is used frequently in places like China to make soup, “which is thought to enhance virility, fertility and longevity.”

She added that the vaquitas are about the same size as the totoaba, meaning the illegal nets also catch the porpoises, dwindling the vaquita population.

The survey team monitored the Gulf of California’s zero gill net tolerance area for two weeks looking for the porpoises.

The survey estimates there are about 10-13 vaquitas in the area, which Hall said is a stable number. She said there were also 16 spottings and 61 acoustic detections.

“We were also able to confirm that there is a calf out there, which is hope for the future,” she added.

Recent conservation efforts in the area are believed to be a factor in the stable population.

In August 2022, the Mexican Navy dropped 193 concrete blocks with hooks, designed to entangle and take down the nets, into the zero-tolerance area.

The survey showed the area’s fishing levels decreased by about 90 per cent.

Hall said the survey was done in May when the fishing season is lower, but the results were still encouraging.

More concrete blocks are expected to be dropped throughout the Gulf of California, and the zero-tolerance zone will be expanded.

“Perhaps we are on the edge of existence rather than the edge of extinction,” Hall explained.

She added this situation comes down to sustainable fisheries, which is often discussed in B.C.

“We have communities on our coast that are supported by fisheries, and this just speaks to the importance of sustainable practices with our oceans,” Hall said. “This is not an issue that is isolated to Mexico, this is something that is relevant here at home as well.”

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