World Heritage Committee Designates Vaquita Porpoise Habitat as “In Danger”

AWI’s marine animal consultant, Kate O’Connell, attending the World Heritage Committee meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan

Mexico Urged to Act Aggressively to Save Critically Endangered Vaquita, Totoaba

Baku, Azerbaijan—The UNESCO World Heritage Committee today approved an “in danger” designation for an area of Mexico that is the last-remaining home of the critically endangered vaquita porpoise and a fish called the totoaba. An international team of scientific experts recently concluded that only about 10 vaquitas remained alive in 2018.

The “in danger” designation for Mexico’s Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California World Heritage site came in response to a 2015 petition filed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Animal Welfare Institute. After postponing a decision for several years, the World Heritage Committee decided to list the site. For the area to be removed from the “in danger” list, Mexico must work with UNESCO to develop corrective measures to save the vaquita.

“This designation is a crucial step toward saving the last surviving vaquita porpoises from deadly fishing nets, but Mexico still has to act,” said Alejandro Olivera, the Center’s Mexico representative, who is attending the Committee meeting in Azerbaijan. “The international community just sent a clear message that Mexico must do better, but the decision also opens opportunities for funding a real conservation program to avoid the vaquita’s extinction. The Mexican government will have new incentives and new resources to stop the illegal fishing that’s killing the world’s most endangered marine mammal.”

Vaquita face only one threat: they become entangled in gillnets illegally set to capture shrimp and various fish species, especially the endangered totoaba. Totoaba swim bladders are illegally exported by organized criminal syndicates from Mexico to China and other countries, where they are highly valued for their perceived medicinal properties.

Illegal fishing is rampant in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California. Between October 2016 and April 2019, wildlife protection organizations, the Mexican government and fishermen collected nearly 1,200 illegal gillnets from the vaquita’s habitat. The vast majority of these nets (721) were actively set, not ghost gear.

“The decision by the WHC is an urgent call to action for Mexico to receive assistance, including financial, from governments around the world to prevent the vaquita from becoming another example of human-caused extinction,” said Kate O’Connell, a marine wildlife consultant with the Animal Welfare Institute. “It is not too late to save the species, but Mexico must act decisively to shut down illegal fishing in vaquita habitat, and a global effort, led by Mexico, China, and the United States, is needed to eradicate the illegal trade in totoaba parts.”

After several years of strong opposition to an “in danger” designation, Mexican officials attending the Committee’s meeting accepted the designation. The 21-member World Heritage Committee recognized that, with so few vaquita remaining and Mexico’s poor track record enforcing its regulations to save the vaquita and totoaba, the designation was necessary.

“Illegal fishing in the northern Gulf of California is pushing the vaquita over the extinction cliff,” said Zak Smith, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Working with the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, the new Mexican administration now has a small window of opportunity to shift course and take the bold actions necessary to save the species over the next six months.”

The decision by the Committee opens the possibility of additional support to save the vaquita. The property can be removed from the List of World Heritage in Danger if the vaquita is no longer under threat. Conversely, the vaquita’s extinction could cause the World Heritage Committee to consider deleting the property from the World Heritage List. Mexico must avoid that outcome at all cost.

As part of a continuing effort to urge the Mexican government to rigorously enforce laws to protect the rapidly disappearing species, AWI and Center members and others plan to rally on Friday, July 12 outside the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C. The rally—held in conjunction with the July 6 International Save the Vaquita Day 2019—is one of several happening across the country and the world this week.

Media Contact

Sydney Hearst, (202) 446-2128, sydney@awionline.org

About the Animal Welfare Institute
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 www.awionline.org. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates and other important animal protection news.

About the Center for Biological Diversity
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places. www.biologicaldiversity.org

About the Natural Resources Defense Council
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 2 million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world's natural resources, public health, and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.