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  • Urgent action needed to save the vaquita from extinction
  • Numbers have plummeted by 90 per cent since 2011 because of gillnets - used for unsustainable fishing practices and illegal wildlife harvesting
  • Critical time: Last hope for the vaquita is permanent gillnet ban – current ban expires 31 May

London: With fewer than 30 critically endangered vaquitas remaining, WWF is calling for immediate action to save the species from extinction. New research details the urgent response that is needed to protect the world’s most endangered marine mammal and prevent irreversible damage to the Gulf of California in Mexico, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the only home to the remaining vaquita.

WWF’s report comes at a critical time: at the end of May the current two-year ban on gillnets - fishing nets which are hung vertically to trap fish by their gills and the single biggest threat to the species – is set to expire. Despite some efforts by the Mexican government to effectively enforce its temporary ban, illegal gillnet fishing has continued, causing vaquita populations to decline by a staggering 90 per cent since 2011. 

Vaquitas are only found in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California and are the world’s smallest cetacean. The sudden drop in numbers is due to unsustainable fishing practices and illegal wildlife trafficking of the totoaba - another critically endangered species endemic to the region - driven by demand for the totoaba’s bladder. WWF is calling on the Mexican government to introduce and enforce a permanent ban on all gillnets and remove all ghost nets (fishing gear that has been lost or abandoned in the water) to prevent any bycatch of the vaquita.

Chris Gee, Head of Campaigns, WWF-UK said: “Time is rapidly running out for the Vaquita, we could tragically lose the ‘panda of the sea’ in a matter of months. We need the public’s help now to motivate the Mexican government to act to protect the species and the World Heritage site that provides home to the vaquita. The last hope for the species is the Mexican government immediately putting in place and properly enforcing a permanent ban on gillnets. This will also help safeguard this precious World Heritage site and the livelihoods of the local people who depend on it.”

The illegal trade of totoaba swim bladders is a major contributor to the decline of vaquitas, which get caught in the same gillnets. As the majority of totoabas are transported on an illegal trade route from Mexico through the United States to China, WWF is urging the U.S. and Chinese governments to collaborate with Mexico to intercept and halt the illegal transport and sale of totoaba products. Globally, illegal wildlife trafficking is the fourth largest illegal trade, worth over an estimated £15 billion annually.

WWF also urges international institutions to hold Mexico and other governments to account if they do not take immediate and decisive actions. Without urgent action Mexico risks an ‘in danger’ listing for its Gulf of California World Heritage site.   WWF is asking the public to contact the President of Mexico, Enrique Peña Nieto, via www.wwf.org.uk/vaquita to request he takes urgent action.

Notes to editors

  1. The full report, Vanishing vaquita: Saving the world’s most endangered marine mammal is available to download here. The work to save the vaquita is part of a WWF global campaign, Together, Saving Our Shared Heritage, which launched in April 2016 to safeguard natural World Heritage sites. Over 1 million people have taken advocacy actions to the leaders of Belize, Bulgaria, Spain and Tanzania within the first 12 months of the campaign: wwf.org.uk/saveourheritage
  2. In April 2017, WWF published a report on illegal wildlife trafficking in World Heritage sites. Despite their recognized value and protected status, the report found that illegal fishing, poaching and logging occur in nearly 50 per cent of natural World Heritage sites, driving endangered species like tigers, elephants and rhinos to the brink of extinction and putting the livelihoods and wellbeing of communities who depend on them at risk. 
  3. Another significant threat to natural World Heritage sites is harmful industrial activities, with almost half of all sites at risk. A 2016 report published by WWF details the issues faced by natural World Heritage sites and how safeguarding these areas of outstanding universal value can drive sustainable development.
  4. About vaquita:

The vaquita, meaning ‘little cow’ in Spanish, is the world’s smallest cetacean. It is the world’s rarest marine mammal and is found only in the northern region of the Gulf of California World Heritage site. The vaquita’s unique facial markings (a black ring around each eye and black curved lips) have been compared to a smiling panda. The vaquita is very elusive and was only discovered in 1958. Research on the marine mammal has been very limited but has shown that the vaquita makes strong contributions to the ecosystem and can aid ecosystem recovery.

  1. About the Gulf of California:

The Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California UNESCO World Heritage site is an area of global conservation importance, supporting an incredibly diverse array of species, including more than one third of the world’s marine mammal species, five of the world’s seven sea turtle species, and almost 900 fish species. The area was officially listed as a World Heritage site in 2005. The site is an important breeding area for several great whale species and provides habitats and breeding areas for migratory seabirds. The site supports some of the most important fisheries in Mexico and is a major international tourist destination, which are key drivers of local economic growth.

  1. WWF is one of the world’s largest independent conservation organisations, with more than five million supporters and a global network active in more than one hundred countries. Through our engagement with the public, businesses and government, we focus on safeguarding the natural world, creating solutions to the most serious environmental issues facing our planet, so that people and nature thrive.  Find out more about our work, past and present atwwf.org.uk.

Chris Gee, Head of Campaigns, WWF-UK and Heather Sohl, Chief Adviser, Wildlife are available for interview.

For further information, please contact:

Heather Carswell

+44 (0) 1483 412533

07815 741183