Vaquita habitat now listed as ‘World Heritage in Danger’

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  • The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has decided to list the Sea of Cortez and its islands in Mexico’s Gulf of California, the only place where the critically endangered vaquita is known to occur, on the List of World Heritage in Danger.
  • The porpoise’s numbers have dropped drastically, from around 300 in the mid-2000s to just 10 individuals, according to the latest estimate, mostly as a result of getting entangled in gillnets used in the poaching of totoaba fish.
  • The continuing illegal totoaba trade poses a threat to the outstanding universal value of the World Heritage Site, the World Heritage Committee said, recommending that the site be placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

The UNESCO World Heritage Committee has decided to list the Sea of Cortez and its islands in Mexico’s Gulf of California, the only place where the critically endangered vaquita is known to occur, on the List of World Heritage in Danger.

The story of the vaquita (Phocoena sinus), the smallest and the most threatened species of porpoise, is one of tragedy. The porpoise’s numbers have dropped drastically, from around 300 in the mid-2000s to just 10 individuals, according to the latest estimate, mostly as a result of getting entangled in gillnets meant to catch the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi).

The totoaba, too, is critically endangered and found only in the Gulf of California. It’s prized for its swim bladders in China, and demand for the delicacy has given rise to totoaba poaching using gillnets and a massive illegal trade in Mexico.

In its report, the World Heritage Committee welcomed Mexico’s efforts to protect the vaquita by taking steps such as creating a refuge area for the species, promoting alternative fishing gear, and stepping up surveillance in the upper Gulf of California. “Unfortunately, these efforts appear not to have significantly reduced the pressures on the property from illegal fishing of totoaba, nor prevented the further decline of the vaquita population,” the report notes.

The few remaining vaquitas live a very small area, most of which lies within the Vaquita Refuge, the report says, where illegal fishing for totoaba continues to occur at high levels.

“It is an alarming indicator of the severity of illegal wildlife trade that we may soon witness the extinction of such an iconic species as the vaquita — within the supposed safety of a World Heritage site,” Peter Shadie, director of the IUCN’s World Heritage Programme, said in a statement. “Mexico’s constructive approach to the Gulf of California’s danger-listing will help mobilise action to stop this threat before it depletes more of our precious marine heritage, and IUCN stands ready to support its efforts.”

Inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2005, the Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California (also called the Sea of Cortez and its islands) contains the vaquita’s habitat, and is recognized as an area of global marine conservation significance. The area, with its spectacularly diverse habitats, landscapes and species, is also considered to have “outstanding universal value,” or OUV. The continuing illegal totoaba trade poses a threat to the OUV, the report notes.

Recommending that the area be placed on the List of World Heritage in Danger, the World Heritage Committee requested Mexico to “develop, in consultation with the World Heritage Centre and IUCN, a set of corrective measures, a timeframe for their implementation and a proposal … to address the issue of illegal fishing and to enable the necessary regulatory and operational reforms for legal fisheries to ensure that they are sustainable and do not cause bycatch of marine mammals, sharks and turtles, in order to guarantee the long-term protection of the OUV of the property.”

A vaquita swims in the Gulf of California. Image by Paula Olson/NOAA via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).

This story first appeared on Mongabay

South Africa Today – Environment



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