Rare Porpoise Faces Two-Year Window to Prevent Extinction

Mexico's vaquita porpoise population has plumeted to just 150, according to a new study published this week in the journal Conservation Biology. When I last wrote about this critically endangered species back in February, estimates placed the population at 400. The study's authors now fear that the vaquita will face certain extinction if dramatic steps are not taken over the next two years.

At least 40 vaquita are caught up in fishermens' nets every year. The study says that at least 100 vaquita are necessary to preserve genetic diversity. If we lose 80 more vaquita over the next two years, the population would drop to just 70, and extinction would be almost guaranteed.

Saving the vaquita won't be easy, though. Hundreds, if not thousands, of local fishermen depend on the vaquita's ocean habitat for their livelihoods. And they have not been happy about previous efforts to preserve the porpoise. Nature reports:

"Fishing industry advocates sometimes speak openly of wiping it out... Earlier programmes to alter fishing practices in the region have proven difficult to implement; last year, $1 million from the government that ostensibly paid regional fishermen not to fish instead went to buy new boats and motors, scientists say."

Meanwhile, the vaquita's South American cousins also face increasing struggles. Dolphins living in the Amazon and Orinoco rivers have seen "a very large drop in the numbers," according to biologist Fernando Trujillo's 20-month study. Athough detailed historic population counts are not available, Trujillo says that "thousands" of fresh-water dolphins have disappeared from these waterways over the last 25 years -- along with many fish species and fishermen.

But not all dolphin news is disasterous. In India, endangered fresh-water dolphins are often killed solely to be used as bait. But now a new alternative has been developed using the viscera from several common species of fish. "More than 80 per cent of the dolphins are killed in Bihar, Bengal and Assam for dolphin oil so an alternative to it can only stop their death," said Ravindra Kumar Sinha, a scientist at Patna University. According to a report in The Hindu, "researchers have been training fishermen of Bihar and Assam to use the new bait to catch fish."

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