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On verge of extinction, vaquita population estimated at under 10

After one is found dead, more pessimism about saving the species

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A week after environmentalists estimated just 22 vaquita porpoises were left in the Sea or Cortez, that number has been revised.

The environmentalist group Sea Shepherd, after finding the body of a vaquita caught in an illegal fishing net, now say perhaps only nine remain in the world.

The tiny endangered sea mammal is found only in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, off the Baja Peninsula.

The group said the remains were too badly decomposed for immediate identification and had been turned over to authorities for further study.

Sea Shephard patrols the Gulf of California, as the body of water is also known, removing illegal fishing nets set for totoaba, a fish whose swim bladder is considered a delicacy in China.

The vaquitas are concentrated in an increasingly small area of about 15 by seven miles, a report said.

“The few remaining vaquitas inhabit a very small area, approximately 24 by 12 kilometers, most of which lies within the Vaquita Refuge. However, high levels of illegal fishing for totoaba occur in this area,” the report said.

Defending the vaquitas in the small area should not be “an impossible task, as the area to be protected is not large,” the report added.

But Sea Shepherd’s vessels have come under increasing harassment and attacks in the gulf in recent months, and the totoaba season — in which the big fish gather to breed — will reach its peak between now and May.

The boldness of illegal fishermen, the small number of remaining vaquita and the inability of the Mexican Navy and authorities to stop poaching has raised alarms among environmentalists.

“Reports from the region suggest that the illegal fishery is growing, and there have been several recent episodes of violence by illegal fishermen directed at net removal vessels and their crews, legal fishermen, and even the Mexican Navy,” an international commission’s report said. “These events illustrate the continued failure of enforcement efforts and the lack of respect for Mexican law by illegal fishermen.”

In a last-stand bid to save the vaquita, the commission urged the Mexican government to provide 24-hour surveillance and patrols of the small remaining habitat area, and “take all necessary measures to protect net removal teams.”

“There is only the tiniest sliver of hope remaining for the vaquita,” said Kate O’Connell, a marine wildlife consultant with the Animal Welfare Institute. “Mexico must act decisively to ensure that all gillnet fishing is brought to an end throughout the upper gulf.”

Source: The Associated Press

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