New research done in collaboration with the Vertebrate Genomes Project is giving some much-needed hope for the vaquita. The latest estimates state that the world’s smallest cetaceans are down to just 19 individuals left.

Researchers have now been able to generate a complete high-quality genome sequence for the species, however, and the results show the population is genetically healthy despite their low numbers. How they were able to obtain the data is a rather sad story, however.

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In 2017, the plan was to create a safe haven off the coast of Mexico for the vaquita. With the biggest threat to the species being illegal fishing operations, a sea pen was created in the hopes of helping the remaining individuals breed. The plan did not work, however.

The first individual placed in the pen immediately showed signs of duress. They were quickly released back into the wild as a result. A second individual was placed in the pen and seemed to do well at first but then suffered from similar signs of duress. This individual, a female, suffered a cardiac arrest and died.

Researchers collected tissue samples from the deceased female vaquita and brought them to the Vertebrate Genomes Project. Her cells were able to give the researchers the most complete genetic profile of any whale, porpoise, or dolphin.

The data collected have shown that the vaquita population is not suffering from the impacts often associated with low population numbers. Species with small populations are often at risk of an increased rate of decline due to a lack of genetic diversity and inbreeding. This research shows that the vaquita aren’t genetically declining due to their low population numbers.

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While this is most certainly good news, it doesn’t change that the vaquita population is still at great risk due to illegal fishing. In particular, vaquita are vulnerable to getting caught in gillnets, a type of netting designed in a way that a fish’s head can pass through but not its body.

Mexico placed a ban on gillnets in 2015, ultimately making the move permanent two years later. Fishing operations in the area still used the banned nets, however, often when fishing for totoaba, a species whose swim bladders are often sold on the underground market.

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Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho is the chair of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita. He knows that the vaquita’s survival depends on a reduction in the use of gillnets. He recently stated that some fisher people in the area have reported on good progress with alternatives to gillnets.

Recently, some fishermen have been able to catch more using the alternative gear than they did with traditional gillnets,” he said to the Smithsonian. “So that means it can work.”

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Sign this petition to help save the vaquita.

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