Phoenix Zoo supporters have donated nearly $80,000 to help save the world’s most endangered marine mammal.
Vaquitas, also nicknamed “desert porpoise,” are marine mammals most people have likely never heard of — but live right in Arizona’s backyard. It is the most endangered of the world’s 128 marine mammal species, and lives about 50 miles south of the Arizona border in the northernmost part of the Gulf of California near Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point).
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has estimated there are fewer than 60 vaquitas left. In a statement issued Friday by the Phoenix Zoo, that number was cut by half. The vaquita, which literally translates to “little cow,” has been decimated over the years by gillnetting. That type of fishing method uses walls of netting to target a particular fish, but vaquitas often get tangled in the nets and drown.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums and its members pledged more than $1 million and the Mexican government pledged up to $3 million toward the rescue of the vaquita porpoise. The Phoenix Zoo joined the fundraising campaign to help finance an international action plan to create a sanctuary in the Gulf of California that would encourage vaquitas to reproduce and thrive until they can return to a habitat free from gillnetting. Officials announced Friday that the zoo had met its fundraising goal.
The zoo began requesting public donations at ticket windows on March 8, and the option to “Round Up for Conservation” is available. So far, visitors have donated more than $12,0000 to the cause. The Phoenix Zoo also sent $50,000 from its conservation fund to the project, and an additional $15,000 from the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation Board of Trustees.
The vaquita is part of the cetacean family, which includes whales, dolphins and porpoises. It has a “dark ring around its eyes and dark patches on its lips that form a thin line from the mouth to the pectoral fins,” according to the World Wildlife Federation. “Its dorsal surface is dark gray, sides pale gray and ventral surface white with long, light gray markings. Newborn vaquita have darker coloration.” A mature vaquita is about 5 feet long and weighs 120 pounds.
In 1997, there were an estimated 567 vaquitas remaining, according to a study by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Experts have cited gillnetting as the chief cause of population decline; fishermen use the technique to catch an endangered fish, the totoaba, that lives among vaquitas. The fish is highly desired by Asian markets for the purported medicinal value of its swim bladder. A single bladder can bring in $10,000.
The vaquita conservation plan would temporarily remove the mammals from their current habitat and create a “safe heaven” in the northern Gulf of California. The porpoises would be housed and cared for by veterinarians and animal specialists from the U.S. and Mexico. Implementation of this plan would take several years and cost more than $3.7 million in 2017 alone.
In May 2015, Mexico’s president implemented a two-year ban on gillnettings where vaquitas live and breed, and the Mexican navy enforces the ban. As a deterrent, local fishermen and surrounding communities are compensated for the lost income, but the fisheries division of the NOAA says the illegal practice continues.
Recently, dozens of fishermen angered by the gilnettings ban overturned inspectors’ trucks, burned or destroyed vehicles and patrol boats, and beat three inspectors from the country’s environmental protection office in a town on the Gulf of California, the Associated Press reported.
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