By Carolina Pulice
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - The Mexican government announced a new agreement with conservation group Sea Shepherd on Tuesday aimed at boosting protection of the endangered vaquita porpoise, as the world's smallest cetacean nears extinction.
The agreement comes after years of collaboration between Sea Shepherd and the Mexican navy to protect the vaquita's reserve in the Sea of Cortes in northern Mexico. Just 1.5 meters in length, the vaquita is tiny compared with the blue whale, the largest cetacean, which extends more than 20 meters.
The critically endangered vaquita has been imperiled by illegal gill net fishing for the fish totoaba, itself an endangered species whose bladder is highly valued in Asia. Vaquitas often become entangled in the nets.
Now local authorities, along with the conservation group, will effective immediately broaden their efforts along the Mexican Pacific coast by extending their protection protocols to the totoaba as well.
They will also expand the protected zone by more than 60% within the so-called zero tolerance area, in which fishing is forbidden.
"More protection means a better chance for survival for the vaquita and the totoaba," Pritam Singh of Sea Shepherd said in a statement.
The expanded protection is good news, but the Mexican government should also enforce its ban on illegal fishing more aggressively, said Alejandro Olivera, senior scientist and Mexico representative at the Center for Biological Diversity.
The International Whaling Commission issued in August an extinction alert for the vaquita porpoise.
There was some hope however after Sea Shepherd's latest surveillance mission spotted around a dozen healthy-looking vaquitas, including calves, "roughly the same" estimate as the last survey in October 2021.
(Reporting by Carolina Pulice in Mexico City; Editing by Rod Nickel)