FROM OUR SPECIAL SECTION: FACING EXTINCTION
(KGTV) -- There's only one place on earth where you'll find the vaquita, the world's smallest whale: in waters less than three hours south of San Diego
An elusive porpoise known as the "panda of the sea" for its unique markings, the vaquita makes its habitat in the Sea of Cortez in the upper Gulf of Baja California.
The creature is also on the brink of extinction.
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There are only about a dozen vaquita remaining on our planet, according to marine officials in the United States and Mexico.
Vaquitas aren't hunted, but they've become an unintended catch in a multi-million dollar black market business for a fish called the totoaba.
An estimated 2,000 illegal gillnets weighted under the surface of the Sea of Cortez targeting the totoaba are trapping the vaquita, a relatively small porpoise.
'COCAINE OF THE SEA'
The totoaba is fished for its swim bladder, considered to be more valuable than gold. Fishers cut open the fish, take out the organ and discard the rest of the fish.
Each swim bladder brings poachers up to $8,000, equal to nearly half of a yearly household income in Mexico.
In China, swim bladders are used in soup with purported medicinal value, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Thousands of swim bladders are dried and smuggled out of Mexico—sometimes through the United States.
It's illegal to fish for the tatoaba, but poachers have set hundreds of gillnets to seize priceless creature. Unfortunately, the hunt is happening within the vaquita habitat.
In 2015, Mexican officials temporarily banned the nets in response to the rapidly declining population of the vaquita. Mexico's president even offered to pay fisherman for their loss of income during the ban. In July 2017, a federal agreement permanently banned all gillnets except those used for fishing two species: curvina and sierra, according to the NOAA.
Drift gillnets are kept afloat at the proper depth using a system of weights and buoys attached to the headrope, footrope, or floatline.
SAN DIEGO GROUP'S RACE AGAINST TIME, AND CARTELS
An effort to help the critically endangered vaquita, called VaquitaCPR, was recently led by San Diego Marine Veterinarian, Dr. Cynthia Smith. She, along with 89 of the world's top marine experts from 9 countries, attempted something never before tried.
They went to the Sea of Cortez, established a base station to house the marine mammal, and set about to capture, protect, and eventually release the porpoise back into the wild once the area is safe from illegal fishing.
The team managed to catch a female vaquita.
Despite monitoring the animal's vitals and allowing her to swim in the sea pools, the vaquita did not accept the care of humans.
As the team released her, she suffered cardiac arrest and could not be revived.
This heartbreaking loss told the team that the hope of rescuing the porpoise in order to save it from certain death in the wild, would not be possible.
Now the Mexican government is being pressured by marine scientists around the globe to enforce a fishing ban in the vaquita refuge effectively.
Only after illegal fishing stops, gillnets are removed, and the world demands we give the vaquita a safe place to live and recover will there be hope for the species.
Right now, in real-time, on our watch, we are losing a species.
The fishing season began in the gulf in January. It runs through May.
The VaquitaCPR team will travel to Mexico in the spring to look for survivors.
Today, there are fewer than 12 vaquitas left on earth.