June 25, 2009

Mexican Economy Has Impact On Endangered Cetacean

Mexico's swine flu crisis, coupled with its reeling economy, may end a plan to save the world's most endangered cetacean.

The vaquita, the world's smallest cetacean, has seen its population dwindle to 150, and nearly 30 more die each year due to fishing nets.

Mexican officials have cut funding aimed to make fishing boats vaquita-friendly.

The endangered cetacean illustrates the problem with other dolphins and porpoises around the world, say campaigners.

Currently, scientists, environmentalists, and whale-hunters are meeting at an International Whaling Commission (IWC) gathering, but a recent WWF report shows that the whale's smaller relative may be more at risk.

Earlier this year, the Yangtse River Dolphin was declared extinct, and conservationists believe the Critically Endangered vaquita (Phocoena sinus) could be next.

"The estimated mortality comes to more than 30 animals per year, and having a population that is only 150 - you can imagine that the population will not survive if nothing is done," said Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, Mexico's IWC commissioner.

"The situation is so critical; you can't kill more than one vaquita per year if you want to save it for future generations."

After ignoring the problem for years, the Mexican government put $18 million into a fund designed to remove nets from waters in the Gulf of California, the vaquitas only habitat.

According to Dr. Rojas-Bracho, the program removed over 500 illegal fishing vessels from the Gulf of California, while helping 400 legal fishing vessels adopt vaquita-friendly gear.

Another grant of similar size was to be given, but has since been cut by 60 percent due to Mexico's current economic situation.

"Our environment minister has insisted it's a priority for the government, so we're happy with that - but it won't be easy," Dr. Rojas-Bracho told BBC News.

The U.S. and Sweden both contributed to the fund, which was also supported by the WWF and International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

According to Dr. Rojas-Bracho, other conservation organizations were not as eager to contribute to the cause.

Had they received full funding, it might have been possible to bring vaquita deaths down to zero in order to save the species, Dr. Rojas-Bracho said.

Now that might not be possible, he added.

Currently, the vaquita and the baiji top a WWF list of most endangered small cetaceans.

The river dolphins of the Indus and Ganges, Hector's dolphin of New Zealand, the Atlantic humpbacked dolphin that lives off the West African coast and the boto or Amazon dolphin are also included on the list.

The WWF points out that 40 of the 69 small cetacean species are known as Data Deficient by the Red List of Threatened Species, meaning there is not enough data to know whether their populations are declining.

Many groups, including the IWC, decline to include the conservation of these small cetaceans.

"It is time for the IWC and its members to take full responsibility for the conservation future of all whales great and small," said Heather Sohl, of WWF UK.


Image Caption: Dead vaquita caught in a fishing net. Conservation International Mexico/Northwest Program


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