Rare porpoises decimated by cocaine of the sea offered DNA lifeline

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Just 10 vaquita porpoises, native only to Mexico, are thought to be left in the wild. This compares to 30 back in 2017, but since then they’ve seen a 90 per cent decline in numbers in just six years.

Despite this, the miniscule population is still viable, according to a new genetic study, staving off extinction fears if human influence in their habitat is scaled back.

Standing in the way of the porpoise’s survival are two things: nets placed in the sea and the illegal trade of the totoaba fish thriving on the Mexican coast.

The silvery vaquitas become tangled in gillnets, or large nets placed in the water, slashing their numbers to the brink of extinction.

But Dr Jacqueline Robinson, of the University of California, San Francisco, said: “Our study very clearly shows that the vaquita has a really good chance of avoiding extinction, if we are able to protect it, by removing the gillnets from its habitat.”

Dismissing fears the porpoise could be “doomed” down to the impacts of a small gene pool, Dr Robinson argued the vaquita was not “genetically compromised”.

She added: “It really comes down to our choices and actions in terms of giving the vaquita the best chance at surviving.”

The researchers looked at DNA from porpoises between 1985 and 2017, and concluded that the species “have a very high chance of making it over the next 50 years, if they receive complete protection”.

But the “complete protection” of the vaquitas is perhaps easier said than done.

Attempts to rid the Gulf of California of gillnets have met significant opposition among fishing communities.

A separate trade in the totoaba fish – itself an endangered species – has contributed to the porpoises’ descent into possible extinction.

The fish is hunted for its swim bladder, which is held in high esteem in China for what are believed to be its medicinal properties.

The Earth League International, an environmental NGO, estimates that a kilogram of 10-year-old dried swim bladders can go for around £60,000 in China.

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But for the fishermen on the Mexican coast who make minimal profits from the trade, the totoaba business has become known as the “cocaine of the sea”.

Ramon Franco Diaz, president of a fishing federation in the Mexican coastal state of Baja Calfornia, recalled when local fishermen “used to catch it in the 60s and 70s”.

He told the BBC: “Then the Chinese came with their suitcases full of dollars, and bought our consciences.”

He said: “The illegal fishermen – the criminal elements – are so strong that in the plain light of day you see them with their illegal nets and totoaba.”

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