Baku, Azerbaijan - The UNESCO World Heritage Committee on Wednesday approved an "in danger" designation for an area of Mexico that is the last-remaining home of the critically endangered vaquita porpoise and a protected fish called the totoaba. An international team of scientific experts recently concluded that only about 10 vaquitas remained alive in 2018.
The "in danger" designation for Mexico's Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California World Heritage site came in response to a 2015 petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Animal Welfare Institute. After postponing a decision for several years, the World Heritage Committee decided to list the site. For the area to be removed from the "in danger" list, Mexico must work with UNESCO to develop corrective measures to save the vaquita.
Vaquita face only one threat: they become entangled in gillnets illegally set to capture shrimp and various fish species, especially the endangered totoaba. Totoaba swim bladders are illegally exported by organized criminal syndicates from Mexico to China and other countries, where they are highly valued for their perceived medicinal properties.
Illegal fishing is rampant in Mexico's Upper Gulf of California. Between October 2016 and April 2019, wildlife protection organizations, the Mexican government and fishermen collected nearly 1,200 illegal gillnets from the vaquita's habitat. The vast majority of these nets (721) were actively set, not ghost gear.
"The decision by the WHC is an urgent call to action for Mexico to receive assistance, including financial, from governments around the world to prevent the vaquita from becoming another example of human-caused extinction," said Kate O'Connell, a marine wildlife consultant with the Animal Welfare Institute. "It is not too late to save the species, but Mexico must act decisively to shut down illegal fishing in vaquita habitat, and a global effort, led by Mexico, China, and the United States, is needed to eradicate the illegal trade in totoaba parts."
"Illegal fishing in the northern Gulf of California is pushing the vaquita over the extinction cliff," said Zak Smith, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Working with the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, the new Mexican administration now has a small window of opportunity to shift course and take the bold actions necessary to save the species over the next six months."
The decision by the Committee opens the possibility of additional support to save the vaquita. The property can be removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger if the vaquita is no longer under threat. Conversely, the vaquita's extinction could cause the WHC to consider deleting the property from the World Heritage List. Mexico must avoid that outcome at all cost.
As part of a continuing effort to urge the Mexican government to rigorously enforce laws to protect the rapidly disappearing species, AWI and Center members and others plan to rally on Friday, July 12 outside the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C. The rally - held in conjunction with the July 6 International Save the Vaquita Day 2019 - is one of several happening across the country and the world this week.Original article