The vaquita is one of the most endangered of the small cetaceans. Restricted in range to the upper part of the Gulf of California off Mexico's western coast, it has become seriously depleted as a result of widespreaad entanglement, mainly in gill nets used to catch a large fish called the totoaba.

Scientists working in the region first became concerned about its plight in the early 1970s at the same time that PESCA, the Mexican fisheries' authority, was worried about over-exploitation of the totoaba. The Mexican catch had plunged from a peak of 2,261 tonnes in 1942 to a mere 58 tonnes in 1975, the year in which PESCA imposed a ban on totoaba fishing. (The ban is still in force, although catches for research purposes have been allowed since 1985.)

It was thought that this ban would also benefit the vaquita but, unfortunately, it did the opposite. A black market for the fish was created and, as the ban was poorly enforced, nets continued to be set much as before. In addition, some local fishermen began setting gill nets to catch sharks and manta rays thus compounding the vaquitas' problems.

As far as we know, the fishermen do not eat the vaquita. They may use it for bait if it is caught accidentally but many may simply discard the bodies for fear of prosecution.

Scientists studying the vaquita in the wild are working in co- operation with Mexican conservationists to press the government of Mexico to devise a regional management programme for the upper Gulf that would address the effects of fisheries and environmental damage on the vauita population. They are urging that a greater effort be made to determine the exact numbers of vaquitas remaining and to establish how many are still being caught in fishing nets.

Although there are no official estimates of its numbers, the best available information suggests there are probably no more than 200- 400 vaquitas remaining. During an extensive survey of the upper Gulf in 1987, only 40 animals were sighted.

Just 30 years after it was first scientifically described in 1958, the vaquita has been pushed to the brink of extinction. According to Robert Brownell, a scientist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who has studied the vaquita and followed its plight for more than two decades:

'It will be many years before scientists will be able to determine whether the population is increasing or decreasing. It is quite possible, therefore, that the vaquita could become extinct before scientists have clearly documented a decline in its population or learned much about its natural history.'

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