"In Danger" Status Sought for Mexico's Gulf of California World Heritage Area

With Fewer Than 100 Left, Vaquita Porpoise Could be Extinct by 2018

Vaquita - photo by Lorenzo Rojas-BrachoParis, FranceAlthough the World Heritage Committee designated Mexico’s “Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California” as a World Heritage property in 2005 in recognition of the area’s outstanding biodiversity, the vaquita and totoaba now face extinction as a result of fishing activities, including poaching. The vaquita is the world’s smallest porpoise and exists only in Mexico’s Gulf of California. The species has suffered a dramatic and alarming decline, with fewer than 100 animals remaining. Without help, scientists predict, the vaquita could be extinct by 2018US conservation groups petitioned the World Heritage Committee today to designate more than 6,900 square miles of ocean and islands in northern Mexico as “in danger” due to the urgent threat of extinction of the critically endangered vaquita porpoise and totoaba (a fish species) in the Gulf of California. The World Heritage Committee may consider the petition at its annual meeting in Bonn, Germany, this June.

Although the World Heritage Committee designated Mexico’s “Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California”as a World Heritage property in 2005 in recognition of the area’s outstanding biodiversity, the vaquita and totoaba now face extinction as a result of fishing activities, including poaching. The vaquita is the world’s smallest porpoise and exists only in Mexico’s Gulf of California. The species has suffered a dramatic and alarming decline, with fewer than 100 animals remaining. Without help, scientists predict, the vaquita could be extinct by 2018.

“Mexico’s Gulf of CaliforniaWorld Heritage Area holds some of the world’s most incredible biodiversity and two of the world’s rarest species—the vaquita and the totoaba,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “But time is running out. If Mexico doesn’t fully and permanently protect the area, these species will vanish forever.”

Under the World Heritage Convention, a property may be listed as “in danger” if there is a “serious decline in the population of the endangered species” that the property was established to protect, like the vaquita and totoaba. An “in danger” designation, the conservation groups advocate, will focus international attention on the species’ plight and may garner much-needed funds for the area’s conservation.

"The World Heritage Committee has an opportunity to help address the ongoing threats to the vaquita and totoaba by both designating this site as ‘in danger’ and by providing resources to reverse the decline in the species and degradation of this globally important World Heritage Area,” said D.J. Schubert, wildlife biologist at the Animal Welfare Institute. “An ‘in danger’ designation would be a wake-up call to Mexico and the world that more must be done to conserve this area and its species.”

Vaquita are often entangled in shrimp fishing gear and illegal gillnets set for totoaba, a six-foot-long, critically endangered fish that is also only found in the Gulf of California. The totoaba’s swim bladder is highly sought-after to make soup and for unproven treatmentsin traditional Chinese medicine. The species faces an increasing demand in the global black market, as a single totoaba bladder can sell for USD 14,000.

Today’s petition follows Mexico’s announcement last month of a two-year ban on most gillnets in the northern Gulf of California and a promise of increased enforcement. While these measures are critical steps forward, the area requires permanent protection to ensure the two species’ future.

“While we applaud Mexico on its recent efforts to protect the vaquita, the nation has a long and sad history of making ambitious pronouncements but not following through for the vaquita,” said Uhlemann. “We hope an ‘in danger’ listing for the Gulf of California World Heritage property will bring international attention and funding necessary to save both the vaquita and totoaba from extinction.” 

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Media Contact:
Amey Owen, 202-446-2128, amey@awionline.org

About the Animal Welfare Institute
The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) is a nonprofit charitable organization founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. AWI engages policymakers, scientists, industry, and the public to achieve better treatment of animals everywhere—in the laboratory, on the farm, in commerce, at home, and in the wild. For more information on AWI, visit www.awionline.org.

About The Center for Biological Diversity
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 825,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. For more information about The Center, visit www.biologicaldiversity.org.