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San Diego Researchers Aim To Raise Awareness Of Endangered Marine Mammal

Vaquita porpoises swim in the Gulf of California in this undated photo.
NOAA
Vaquita porpoises swim in the Gulf of California in this undated photo.
San Diego Researchers Aim To Raise Awareness Of Endangered Marine Mammal
San Diego Forum Aims To Raise Awareness Of Endangered Marine Mammal GUEST: Barbara Taylor, marine biologist, Southwest Fisheries Science Center

The plight of the vaquita came home to San Diego this weekend. A format the Birch aquarium. There are species of small porpoise and the most endangered marine mammals in the world. They are found only in the Sea of Cortez and at last count, just 60 remain. I spoke with Barbara Taylor of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center about why this ancient species is in decline and what its loss will mean to the region. Can you describe the vaquita porpoise for us? The vaquita is a lovely animal that has basically, a goth makeup job. Black eye patches and black lipstick it's a tiny animal, it's the smallest marine, dolphin or porpoise in the world. It's less than 5 feet long and about 100 pounds. How long do they live? They look to be about 20 years old. You've been out to the Gulf of California, to survey the vaquita, is the Gulf of California the only place this marine mammal has ever been found? Yes. It's a really amazingly small distribution. Most office and porpoises have larger distributions. Most porpoises live in really cold productive waters. The vaquita has been isolated up in the far northern Gulf , the muddy productive waters that overlay the Colorado River Delta for about the last 3 million years. There close to -- closest relative lives in Peru. There are only about 60 of these porpoises left? That's right. And I started working with these animals, our very first survey, there were 600, now they're only 60. What's led to these dwindling numbers? In a word, nets. These animals become entangled that nets but that are set for fish. They touch them with their flippers and get tangled and because they are air breathers they die. They were getting caught in gill nets, even before the craze. They were getting caught by shrimpers, is that right? That's right. The most lucrative fishery there, before the resurgence of the fishery for this very large fish the tote while the -- with these beautiful giant blue shrimp, most of them were sold to high-end restaurants in the US. The real impact on the vaquita came the desire to get the fish is so valuable -- this is a huge fish. It looks just like it in a couple of rivers in China it was called the Baja bug -- the Chinese developed a taste for medicinal purposes for the air bladder the fish uses it to regulate. They claim it has medicinal purposes. It makes it easy to catch this very big fish. Of when the Bo Hall the was wiped out they put through together and saw that they saw that the Totoaba was a corruption of a name. The trade took the species down and put the tran 14 and the Totoaba on the endangered species list the big adults went extinct and it was until recently when they started to recover that this trade with China has resumed. Now it's extremely valuable. How much money are they getting for the air bladders? The fisherman, depending on what size of the air bladder they get, they can get $8-$10,000, that's to the fisherman. A full-size adult females air bladder, this is from a fish that's also endangered can bring tens of thousands of dollars in China. When people became aware, when the world became aware that the vaquita had dwindled to Bologna 100 -- below 100, what has Mexico's government done in response to save the remaining vaquita This government has stepped up more than any government , after we called for an emergency ban of all gill nets within the range of vaquita, they enacted a two-year ban , the president of Mexico came to San Felipe a and told everyone there is a high priority, they were going to shut down the fisheries in compensate the fisherman to $32 million a year. He put the Navy in charge. They are making a serious attempt at saving Mexico's largest endemic mammal. Has it worked? Unfortunately no. There was a loophole in the agreement that allowed a certain type of fishing that used gill nets, but in an active way, if you use it that way it wouldn't catch vaquita . That allowed the continuation of the illegal Totoaba fishery . The Sea Shepherd and the Navy were out there pulling up nets throughout the last Totoaba season from December to March, when this fishery ramped up in March, unfortunately they found three dead vaquita . With a population of 16, that's enough to make for a continuous decline. Even more dramatic actions have to take place, to have Mexico make all the time and money that they've invested in saving the species come to fruition. What will the loss of the vaquita mean , if this mammal does go extinct? I think there's a number of important things, one important thing to the local communities is that the vaquita is the crux of change that can potentially make Mexico a leader in developing sustainable fisheries. Dealing with this gill net problem, they can be world leaders in doing this. If we lose the vaquita , it's going to be the first in a long line of species that we will lose in coastal waters, because of small type the Sherman using gill net and accidentally killing these animals. There are hundreds of thousands of Dolphins and porpoises killed every year. Many of those places, like was the case with the Chinese River dolphin, there are lots of other threats. This case in Mexico, this is the only threat, it's gill nets, it's close to a market that could pick --. Conservation premium for fish that is caught in a way that doesn't cause these two go extinct. I've been speaking with Barbara Taylor.

The vaquita is a small rare porpoise found only in the northern part of the Gulf of Mexico, about a five-hour drive from San Diego.

But these days, even in the Baja Peninsula, vaquita sightings are unusual.

Researchers say the vaquita population has declined 80 percent since 2011. They estimate that fewer than 60 vaquitas are left in existence.

The biggest threat vaquitas face is from gill nets, which are being used by fishermen who are after another endangered fish, the totoaba.

The Mexican government instituted a two-year temporary ban on gill nets. But conservationists worry that if the ban is lifted, vaquitas may be extinct before 2020.

Barbara Taylor with the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla talks with KPBS Midday Edition about what the loss of the vaquita could mean for the marine ecosystem.

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