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  • The number of vaquitas have dwindled dramatically: in 1997, a study found about 600 of the rare mammals in the Gulf of California in Mexico, a number that by 2008 had dropped to 250.

    The number of vaquitas have dwindled dramatically: in 1997, a study found about 600 of the rare mammals in the Gulf of California in Mexico, a number that by 2008 had dropped to 250. | Photo: World Wildlife Fund

Published 3 July 2019

The 43rd session of the UNESCO's World Heritage Committee continues in Banku until 10 July.

UNESCO declared  on Wednesday as endangered the site of the Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California, which comprises 244 islands, islets and coastal areas located in the Gulf of California in northeastern Mexico.

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The site, inscribed on the World Heritage List in 2005, has been in the line to be registered as "endangered" since 2016, as a way to help the Mexican government to better protect the area, especially the last surviving vaquita porpoises — also known as the 'panda of the sea,' for the dark rings encircling their eyes.

The organization praised Mexico's efforts to save the porpoises, yet stressing that the measures implemented had failed so far to stop illegal fishing and poaching. 

The vaquita will be extinct by 2021 if current fishing levels continue in the Gulf of California. Like other mammals, vaquitas breathe air. When they are trapped in nets they cannot rise to the surface to breathe, so drown. 

"Mexico has made efforts to protect these threatened species, notably by creating a refuge for the surviving vaquitas and promoting fishing alternatives to gillnets, which cause the death by asphyxiation of marine mammals," said the report. 

"Despite these measures, only about ten specimens of vaquita remain today (compared to nearly 300 in 2005)," it added, citing a recent report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

The Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California comprises ​​​​​​ 695 vascular plant species — more than in any marine and insular property on the World Heritage List. E

It is also the home of 891, 90 endemic fish species, as well as 39 percent of the world’s total number of species of marine mammals and a third of the world’s marine cetacean species.

In March 2018, several environmental organizations sued the U.S. government, demanding it stop buying shrimp and shellfish from the Gulf of California, the last remaining natural habitat of the vaquita. 

The United States was "violating a provision which aims to ban the purchase of seafood obtained through fishing that wounds or kills marine mammals," according to the lawsuit filed in the New York-based Court of International Trade.

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