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A new study suggests the few vaquita marina may have learned to escape fishing nets

The continued survival of a small porpoise in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California may indicate that the few remaining members of the species have learned how to escape from fishing nets. But experts warn that it will still become extinct if it’s not protected from those nets.

The vaquita marina is the world’s most endangered marine mammal, with an estimated fewer than 10 left. But the small porpoises have survived longer than many expected, with researchers continuing to find the small porpoises, including new calves, living in a small area of the Gulf of California.

A new studypublished in the journal Endangered Species Research suggests that the remaining vaquita may have learned to avoid gillnets or disentangle themselves. And may be able to teach that skill to their young.

"It doesn’t mean that they are bulletproof against entanglement," said Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, lead author on the study. "But these vaquita are extremely valuable. And probably at least some of these animals have taught their calves how to disentangle."

Rojas-Bracho said the gillnets are the sole threat to the species, and unless that threat is removed the vaquita will become extinct.

Getting rid of nets would require cracking down on illegal fishing, as well as providing local fishermen with viable alternative fishing gear. So far, that hasn’t happened, and Rojas-Bracho admits it's not an easy task.

"Although eliminating gillnets seems like a simple problem, in reality the task involves a really major social and cultural changes, too. And you need political will to develop that alternative fishing gear and maintain the livelihoods (of fishermen)," he said.

Conservation scientists have been asking the Mexican government to take that step for more than two decades, he said, but it has only become more difficult with the rise of poaching in the region in recent years. In order to be successful now, he said, the international community needs to not only put pressure on Mexico, but also offer support.

And scientists are convinced that without the threat of nets, the species could recover even from its current low numbers.

"The vaquita can be saved," Rojas-Bracho said. "The vaquita is a very resourceful animal. If we stop killing them, they will recover."

Kendal Blust was a senior field correspondent at KJZZ from 2018 to 2023.