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October 25, 2012

Baiji, Vaquitas, Extinction and You

In this thought-provoking piece on the National Geographic’s Ocean Views blog, Mediterranean Science Commission director general Frederic Briand discusses the precarious and uncertain fate of ocean creatures staring down extinction. About sharks and rays he writes:

These are not target species in Mediterranean fisheries but increasingly threatened, as unreported bycatch, by highly intensive fishing and bottom trawl. The status of many of them is unclear, even for species as conspicuous as the sawfish Pristis pectinata (last seen in 1902), the mako shark Isurus oxyrinchus, or the sandtiger sharks Carcharias taurus and Odontaspis ferox, once abundant and now presumed locally extinct.

But it is the baiji, or Yangtze River dolphin, the first marine mammal to go extinct in modern times, that captures the imagination–the passenger pigeon or dodo for our day.

Nearly blind, the baiji patrolled the turbid waters of the Yangtze River for millenia but has not been seen in almost a decade. It was declared extinct earlier this year by the Chinese government. The dolphin likely succumbed to decades of development, pollution, entanglements in fishing gear, ship strikes and an increasingly chaotic acoustic environment in the Yangtze that proved lethal to a species almost entirely dependent on sound to communicate, find food and find mates.

Now the vaquita, a porpoise in the Sea of Cortez (literally “little cow”) takes up the unenviable mantle of most endangered cetacean in the world. The largest threat faced by the vaquita are gillnets.