March 19, 2008

Tiny Porpoise Near Extinction In Mexico

Biologists say a small stubby-nosed porpoise found only in Mexico's Sea of Cortez is on the verge of extinction, as the number killed in fishing nets each year exceeds the number being born.

Called the vaquita, the notoriously shy porpoises now number 150, down from 600 eight years ago, and scientist now fear the animal may become extinct.

"The urgency now is to prevent the vaquita becoming extinct," said Omar Vidal, director of the conservation group WWF in Mexico, during a Reuters interview in San Felipe, a fishing town in the upper Gulf of California where the vaquitas live.

"The latest studies suggest that we have perhaps one or two years for that," he said. Vidal has been part of a team battling to preserve the species for over 10 years.

The vaquitas, whose name is Spanish for "little cow", are the smallest porpoises in the world. Gray in color and growing to a maximum of 5 feet long, the animals are so timid that they are hardly ever seen.

They avoid the showy gymnastics of other porpoises, and with their black-circled eyes and beak they poke their peculiar-looking faces above the surface for just a second or two when coming up for air before diving quietly back below.

The vaquitas were identified only 50 years ago, and are tracked using underwater microphones to pick up the high frequency sounds the animals make to communicate with one another.

The swift drop in numbers suggests they are getting tangled in fishing nets at a faster rate than they can reproduce.  Indeed, female vaquitas only produce their young once every two years, and with numbers so small the genetic pool is ineffective in breeding.

Meanwhile mesh gillnets used to catch sea bass, mackerel, shrimp and sharks also trap and drown air-breathing vaquitas.

The government is trying to persuade some fishermen to abandon their nets and start conservation-based tourism businesses, however one in four who reside in the area makes a living off fishing, and few want to give up a trade where a small fishing boat can bring in 441 pounds of blue shrimp in a single day, worth thousands of dollars to the export market.

"We've been fishermen all our lives. It's what we do," said Tomas Ceballos, 51, as a government official was promoting a program of financial incentives to start tourism projects.

Conservationists are also trying to convince fishermen to switch to new nets that are less likely to trap vaquita.  Jose Campoy, who heads a marine reserve to protect endangered species in the area, said one vaquita death a year in nets was too many for besieged species.

Juan Elvira Quesada, Mexico's Environment Minister, said the government would spend $10 million this year on protecting the vaquita.

"Every day that goes by is a lost day," he told Reuters.


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