Press release | 03 Jul, 2019

The looming extinction of the vaquita puts Gulf of California on World Heritage danger list

The World Heritage Committee today followed IUCN’s advice to list Mexico’s Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California as a World Heritage site in danger. The site’s population of vaquitas – the world’s smallest and most endangered species of porpoise – has been decimated due to the illegal trade of marine products, with possibly as few as 10 individuals left.

In recent years, illegal fishing activities within the Gulf of California have had devastating impacts on its unique marine wildlife, pushing the vaquita to the brink of extinction. The porpoise gets entangled in gillnets used illegally to fish another Critically Endangered species, the totoaba fish, whose swim bladder fetches high prices in Asian markets.

“It is an alarming indicator of the severity of illegal wildlife trade that we may soon witness the extinction of such an iconic species as the vaquita – within the supposed safety of a World Heritage site,” says Peter Shadie, Director of IUCN’s World Heritage Programme. “Mexico’s constructive approach to the Gulf of California’s danger-listing will help mobilise action to stop this threat before it depletes more of our precious marine heritage, and IUCN stands ready to support its efforts.”

The Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California became a World Heritage site in 2005 for its exceptional marine biodiversity. Composed of 244 islands, islets and coastal areas in north-eastern Mexico, the site boasts 39% of marine mammal species and a third of cetacean species in the world. The Upper Gulf of California is the only place on Earth where the vaquita is found.

In 2017, the population of vaquitas had dramatically declined from some 300 at the time of inscription to an estimated 30 animals. Attempts to breed vaquitas were quickly abandoned as the porpoise proved highly susceptible to captivity-related stress.

An international committee for vaquita recovery estimated that 10 vaquitas remained in the summer of 2018 – prior to the current fishing season. High levels of illegal fishing for totoaba continued and even escalated in 2018 and 2019 in the Upper Gulf of California, including in the small area where the few vaquitas remain.

Following two recent missions and regular monitoring, IUCN and UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre concluded that the threat of illegal fishing on the Gulf of California’s marine life justified the site’s inclusion on the List of World Heritage in Danger. The World Heritage Committee today adopted this advice.

As advised by IUCN, Mexico must now undertake any means necessary to safeguard the remaining vaquitas and develop longer-term solutions to ensure sustainable livelihoods for local communities in the Gulf of California, including through improved sustainable fishing practices. 

The List of World Heritage in Danger is a mechanism designed to facilitate emergency conservation action and international assistance to support severely threatened World Heritage sites.


For more information or to set up interviews please contact:
Célia Zwahlen, IUCN World Heritage Programme,, +41 229990716
Goska Bonnaveira, IUCN Media Relations,, +41 792760185


Notes to editors

IUCN is the advisory body on nature to UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee, which is meeting in Baku, Azerbaijan from 30 June to 10 July.

Natural World Heritage sites are globally recognised as the world’s most important protected areas, inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List for their unique natural values, such as the scale of natural habitats, intactness of ecological processes, viability of populations of rare species, as well as exceptional natural beauty. One in five World Heritage sites is natural.

IUCN evaluates sites nominated to the World Heritage List, monitors the conservation state of listed sites, promotes the World Heritage Convention as a leading global conservation tool, and provides support, advice and training to site managers, governments, scientists and local communities.