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China bladder trade pushes world's smallest porpoise to near extinction

MEXICO CITY -- Gillnet fishing in the upper Sea of Cortez has pushed the vaquita marina, the world's smallest porpoise, to the brink of extinction, according to an environmental report published Friday which states fewer than 100 of them are believed left.

Despite nearly two decades of efforts by Mexico to save the vaquita, new studies using underwater listening devices found only half as many porpoises as were counted in 2012. Experts believe fewer than 25 of the remaining vaquitas are reproductively mature females.

If left unchecked, gillnet fishing and China's insatiable appetite for the swim bladder of the totoaba — another endangered fish hunted in the same area — may seal the fate of the tiny porpoise, according to the report from the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita.

“If there is fishing for totoaba this September, the vaquita might disappear this year,” said Omar Vidal of the World Wildlife Fund. “Totoaba nets are the best device to catch vaquitas.”

The vaquita porpoise lives in just one place: the upper waters of the sea — also called the Gulf of California — between the Baja California Peninsula and mainland Mexico. They were discovered only in 1958, according to the World Wildlife Fund, and now are considered critically endangered.

Fishery restrictions implemented in Colorado River delta have failed to protect the species, in part because of illegal gillnet fishing for totoaba, a huge, heavy fish whose swim bladder is prized by chefs in China, according to the vaquita recovery committee, which is made up of international experts convened by the Mexican government.

The number of vaquitas counted has dropped steadily since around 2010, when Mexican authorities also noticed an uptick in illegal fishing for totoaba, which is similar to the Chinese bahaba that has been fished almost out of existence.

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