The world’s most endangered marine mammal, the tiny porpoise called the vaquita, is hanging on for existence and appears to be benefiting from new conservation measures, according to the results of a new scientific survey of the species released Wednesday.

An international team of scientists estimated that at least 10 vaquita remain in the Gulf of California, the waters that separate Baja California from the Mexican mainland. Porpoises are found nowhere else and have been driven to the brink of extinction by drowning in seine nets, a type of fishing gear that floats like a huge net curtain and catches fish by the gills. Dolphins, sea turtles and vaquitas also get stuck and die when they can’t surface and breathe.

“Today we have good news, hopeful news,” María Luisa Albores González, Mexico’s minister of environment and natural resources, said at a news conference announcing the survey results.

The researchers used visual identification and acoustic monitoring over 17 days in May to survey the population. Among the video footage captured on the elusive animals was a small dorsal fin emerging next to a larger one, suggesting a calf was swimming alongside its mother.

The estimated number of vaquita in the new survey was similar to the previous one, carried out in 2021. At the time, scientists were horrified by what they still saw: more than 100 fishing boats in a highly protected zone known as a zero-tolerance zone. At the time, the Mexican Navy recognized its lack of enforceability to The Times.

Since then, the Navy has begun working more closely with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a non-profit organization that patrols the region and searches for gillnets. And last year, the Navy took a major new step when it dropped a grid of 193 concrete blocks with protruding hooks designed to entangle themselves in fishing nets in the zero-tolerance zone. A new report notes that fishing nets there appear to have fallen by more than 90 percent.

“It’s the biggest vaquita conservation success I’ve seen in 30 years,” said Barbara Taylor, a biologist and vaquita expert who led the survey and who recently retired from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries.

But more will be needed to save the species, she said. While no gillnet was observed in the zero tolerance area during the survey, it was regularly observed just to the northwest where vaquita were also seen. Officially, the device is banned in the wider zone outside the zero tolerance zone.

The report recommends expanding the use of concrete blocks.

“This is such easy, low-hanging fruit for the Mexican government,” said Dr. Taylor. “They know where to do it, they know where to go, they know it’s going to make a difference now, before the next fishing season.”

The more difficult step is to transition local economies that rely on wire mesh to the new equipment. One large and endangered fish in the region, the totoaba, has made the situation particularly volatile as its swim bladder commands high prices in Asia and attracts illegal trade and organized crime. But legal species are also caught with gillnets, including shrimp, corvina and mackerel.

One local effort to promote vaquita-safe gear is run by the Pesca ABC group. His methods yield a better quality catch, but so far there is only enough demand from seafood buyers to support about 30 fishermen.

Katy Carpio works with Pesca ABC and was one of the few community members who participated in the survey and received training on how to identify the animals. Out with the researchers, she saw the vaquita for the first time.

“It was a lot of emotion,” she said. “Good luck adrenaline.

The animals are so rare and hard to spot that many in the community don’t believe they exist. “They tell me, ‘It was a dolphin, it was this, it was that,'” Ms. Carpio said. “And I tell them, ‘Wait until they publish the results, then you’ll see the pictures.’

What’s key for the future, she said, is finding solutions that work for both vaquitas and fishermen.

Mexico has come under increasing international pressure to enforce bans on gillnet fishing in the vaquita’s protected habitat. The country faces current or potential trade sanctions under two United States laws, the Global Wildlife Trade Treaty and an agreement between the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Conserving the species by bringing a certain number into captivity is not the answer. An an effort to do just that in 2017 was abandoned after one animal became so stressed by human contact that it died.

“A lot of very experienced people thought the vaquita was going to be gone by now,” said Kristin Nowell, executive director of Cetacean Action Treasury, a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving the vaquita from extinction. “The fact that it’s doing better than expected gives Mexico one more chance to get it right.”

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