Despite having only approximately 10 wild individuals, the world’s rarest sea mammal has a chance of survival, according to DNA analysis.
According to biologists, the vaquita porpoise is on the verge of extinction, yet DNA testing suggests that the population is still genetically viable.
The little silvery porpoise can only be seen in the Gulf of California in Mexico.
However, being trapped in giant weighted nets known as gillnets poses an existential threat.
“Our analysis reveals that the vaquita has a strong chance of escaping extinction if we can protect it by eliminating gillnets from its habitat,” study researcher Dr Jacqueline Robinson of the University of California, San Francisco, stated.”
Some people had given up hope of conserving the vaquita, believing that even if the species could be preserved from fishing pressures, in-breeding would wipe it out.
According to the study published in Science, the vaquita is not “genetically impaired” and should be able to recover from near-extinction provided its environment is adequately safeguarded.
The scientists looked at DNA from vaquitas caught between 1985 and 2017, which are closely linked to those alive today. They also created a computer model based on their DNA discoveries to anticipate how the population would change over the next 50 years.
The risks of inbreeding are lessened because the species has been rare for a long time and has naturally low levels of genetic variation, according to the researchers. They believe there are lessons to be learned for other endangered species, such as those that live on islands or have a small range.
However, given past tensions between conservationists and locals, as well as diplomatic friction over the Mexican government’s enforcement of fishing bans, saving the vaquita will be difficult.
Gillnet bans have been met with criticism from fishing communities. The illegal trade in the totoaba fish has also contributed to the extinction of the vaquita and other marine species caught in the nets.
Before being included on Mexico’s endangered species list, totoaba was a food source.
The swim bladder, which helps the fish stay afloat, is treasured in China for its rumoured (but untested) therapeutic powers.