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Many people may not be familiar with the vaquita, the harbour porpoise, the smallest marine mammal found only in the small northern corner of the Gulf of California. But this little cousin of whales and dolphins demonstrates the serious dangers facing many modern species. The species has declined from about 570 individuals in 1997 to about 10 today and was the subject of the International Whaling Commission's (IWC) first-ever extinction warning. As with many endangered species,  the root of the problem lies in human activity. The warning was issued by  IWC on August 7, 2023. A statement accompanying the alert said, "Despite nearly 30 years of repeated alerts, the Vaquita is at serious risk due to gillnet entanglement."

The primary purpose of the alert is to inform and motivate action. dr IWC's Lindsey Porter explains: "With the missing person alert, we wanted to get the message across to a wider audience so that everyone understands the seriousness of the situation." Although attempts have been made to help these creatures in the past, methods such as relocating the population have failed in more sheltered waters.

There is some hope, however. The rest of the tiny porpoises, which are around 4 to 5 feet long, appear healthy and happy. Their population, while dangerously small, has remained relatively stable as of 2019. There is even a young cub here at the moment. "There's at least one new Vaquita baby," Porter said. “They haven't stopped breeding. If we can remove that pressure, the population can recover. We can't stop now. Meanwhile, the Mexican government is cracking down on the use of gillnets, a harmful fishing practice that kills many whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Mammals become entangled in webs stretched across the surface of the water, preventing them from returning to the surface and breathing freely. Fishermen in the bay are illegally catching totoaba fish, which are sold in China for use in traditional medicine. The Mexican Navy dropped 193 concrete blocks around the vaquita's habitat to stop this type of fishing. This had an impact and probably reduced their use in this Zero Tolerance Zone (ZTA) by about 90%. However, this has only pushed the practice a little further. IWC hopes their warning of the disappearance will encourage world leaders to seek solutions. The IWC statement states: "The decline in vaquita populations continues, although both the cause (bycatch in gillnets) and the solution (replacement of gillnets with safe alternatives in  vaquita habitat) are very clearly understood." He continues: “The extinction of the vaquita is inevitable unless 100% of gillnets are  immediately replaced with alternative fishing gear that protects the vaquita and the livelihoods of fishermen.” If it doesn't happen now, it will be too late.

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