The vaquita is the world’s smallest porpoise, and it sadly stands on the brink of extinction.

The unfortunate holder of the title of most endangered marine mammal on Earth, the vaquita is dangerously close to extinction. Scientists say that there are only 60 vaquita left in the wild, writes Dominque Mosbergen for The Huffington Post.

Only 60 Vaquita Porpoise Left In The Wild

World’s smallest porpoise in grave danger of extinction

According to Friday’s statement from the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita populations have declined more than 92% since 1997. Conservation efforts must dramatically improve if the small porpoise is not to be extinct by 2022.

“We are watching this precious native species disappear before our eyes,” said panel chairman Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho. 

Vaquitas generally measure just 5 feet in length, making them the smallest cetaceans in the world. They are also the only porpoise found in such warm waters as the Gulf of California, off the coast of Mexico.

Vaquita threatened by illegal fishing

Since the 1990s the vaquita has been threatened by long gill nets used by loca fish and shrimp fishermen. The nets trap the porpoise and they drown, and their decline has accelerated in recent years thanks to increased demand for the critically endangered totoaba fish.

Many people like to consume the totoaba’s swim bladder, sometimes known as maw. It has been described as “aquatic cocaine” and can sell for as much as $10,000 a kilogram in China and Hong Kong, where it is considered a delicacy.

The totoaba is endemic to the Gulf of California. It is captured illegally and smuggled from Mexico to California before it is shipped to Asia. Unfortunately for the vaquita, fishermen use gill nets to catch totaba.

Government programs fail to deter fishermen

Conservation groups successfully pressurized the Mexican government to crack down on illegal totoaba fishing and concentrate on helping the vaquita. A two-year emergency ban on gill nets was introduced last year, and a $70 million plan was announced to compensate affected fishermen.

The area is safeguarded by the Mexican Navy, which has started using new fast boats, planes, helicopters and drones. Rafael Pacchiano Alamán, the secretary of the environment and natural resources, said the Navy has redoubled surveillance work with a particular focus on nighttime operations.

Conservationists were pleased with the developments, but three dead vaquitas were found in gill nets in March. Over 40 gill nets have been recovered since the turn of the year.

Frances Gulland of the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, California, who performed necropsies on two of the carcasses, claimed that the porpoise were killed by “the lure of big money.”

Conservation groups are asking that the gill net ban be made permanent, with better enforcement. Another important point is the demand and trafficking of totaba.

“As with elephants and ivory or rhinos and rhino horn, the relentless demand for the swim bladders of the rare fish in Asia almost guarantees that enforcement efforts in the field in Mexico, while vital, will remain insufficient,” environment writer Andrew Revkin wrote last year.

Both Greenpeace and the WWF have launched campaigns against the totoaba trade. So far a petition to pressurize authorities in Hong Kong has gained over 37,000 signatures. The WWF is lobbying the U.S., China and Mexico to crack down on smuggling of the fish.

“In the end, if the vaquita goes extinct, the three countries will share the responsibility,” the conservation group said this week.