UNESCO Ignores Vaquita's Imminent Extinction, Delays 'In Danger' Designation

This 2008 photo shows a vaquita that died due to entanglement in shrimp gear.

Manama, Bahrain—Conservation and animal protection organizations are alarmed that the UNESCO World Heritage Committee (WHC) today postponed an “in danger” listing for Mexico’s Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California World Heritage site—home of the critically endangered vaquita porpoise.

Fewer than 30 vaquita remain on the planet, after suffering decades of decline because of entanglement in gillnet fishing gear set to catch shrimp and other species. If current rates continue, the vaquita will be extinct by 2021. The Gulf of California site was granted World Heritage status in 2005, in part, to protect the vaquita.

“Given the increasingly dire situation facing the vaquita, the UNESCO delay could mean the loss of this unique species,” said D.J. Schubert, a wildlife biologist at the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) who is attending the committee’s meeting in Bahrain this week. “It’s absolutely critical that the committee and the International Union for Conservation of Nature see to it that Mexico goes beyond empty rhetoric and takes all actions necessary to save the vaquita before it’s too late.”

This is the second time UNESCO has postponed an “in danger” designation for the Gulf of California site. In 2017, the committee granted Mexico’s request to delay a decision for the site for one year to allow the country to improve vaquita protections. Today, the WHC opted again to ignore the vaquita’s plight and would not even discuss an “in danger” designation, even though the porpoise’s population has been reduced by about half since the committee’s last meeting, jeopardizing its very existence.

In 2015, AWI and the Center for Biological Diversity petitioned the WHC to list the site as “in danger” because of the decline of the vaquita and the totoaba—a large, critically endangered fish. Vaquita experts have found that despite the Mexican government’s recent regulatory actions, the vaquita’s decline continued “unabated” last year.<

“Delaying the in-danger designation could be a death sentence for these desperately imperiled porpoises,” said Alejandro Olivera, the Center for Biological Diversity’s Mexico representative, who is also attending the committee’s meeting in Bahrain this week. “The Mexican government bought more time to avoid acting to save the vaquitas, which have nearly vanished on President Peña Nieto’s watch. By delaying these crucial safeguards, UNESCO is letting the current president off the hook for failing to save these porpoises.”

According to WHC guidelines, a site qualifies as “in danger” if a species for which a site was protected suffers a “serious decline.” A recent report on the site by the World Heritage Centre and International Union for Conservation of Nature acknowledges that illegal fishing nets continue to be found in the vaquita’s waters.

As part of an ongoing effort to urge the Mexican government to rigorously enforce laws to protect the rapidly disappearing species, members of AWI and the Center and others plan to rally on July 5 beginning at 8 a.m. outside the Mexican Embassy in Washington, DC Held in conjunction with International Save the Vaquita Day, the rally is one of several happening across the world next week. For more information on the DC rally, visit https://awionline.org/action-ealerts/awis-annual-rally-save-vaquita.

Media Contact

Margie Fishman, (202) 446-2128, margie@awionline.org

The Animal Welfare Institute 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, visit https://www.awionline.org.

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.6 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. www.biologicaldiversity.org.

This 2008 photo shows a vaquita that died due to entanglement in shrimp gear.