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Vaquita, the World's Most Endangered Marine Mammal

     

The Vaquita is not only the world's smallest cetacean, but also the most endangered marine mammal. Only about 30 of them remain and their population is decreasing at an astonishing rate.

 

Vaquita, the World's Most Endangered Cetacean
The Vaquita, the World's Most Endangered Cetacean



The tiny vaquita porpoise (Phocoena sinus) is found only in the shallow waters of the northern Gulf of California, Mexico. It is the most endangered of the 128 marine mammals alive in the world today. The Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita), an international team of scientists established by the government of Mexico and known by its Spanish acronym CIRVA, estimated about 200 vaquitas remaining in 2012. By 2014, CIRVA estimated that about half of them had been killed in gillnets, leaving fewer than 100 individuals. Of these, fewer than 25 were likely to be reproductively mature females. A report prepared by CIRVA in May, 2016 presented an even more dire estimate, finding only 60 vaquitas remaining. This represents a decline of more than 92% since 1997.

Then in 2017, an already desperate situation has worsened. CIRVA issued its eighth report in February, finding that only 30 individual vaquita porpoises remain. Analysis of the 2016 Acoustic Monitoring Program data has shown that almost half of the remaining vaquita population was lost between 2015 and 2016. This shocking new report shows that illegal fishing activities, particularly the setting of large-mesh gillnets for totoaba, continue at alarming levels.

The vaquita, which means "little cow" in Spanish, is perilously close to extinction. In response to this, the Mexican government has taken a number of steps to protect them since 2004. They established a Vaquita Refuge in the northern Gulf of California to protect the core range of the vaquita, and initiated a plan of monetary compensation to fishermen who relied on this area to make their living. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto declared an emergency two-year ban on gillnets throughout the range of the vaquita, beginning in May 2015.

    "Analysis of the 2016 Acoustic Monitoring Program data has shown that almost half of the remaining vaquita population was lost between 2015 and 2016 (a 49% annual decline)."
Report Of The Eighth Meeting Of The Comité Internacional Para La Recuperación De La Vaquita

Despite these efforts, the latest acoustic survey indicates that the decline in the vaquita population is accelerating. The rapid fall of the population is a direct result of rampant illegal trade in an endangered fish species, the totoaba, which is caught in gillnets that entangle vaquitas. The totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) is a large fish that grows to over six feet long and weighs up to 300 pounds.

The totoaba is in high demand for its swim bladder, a gas-filled internal organ that allows the fish to ascend and descend by controlling its bouyancy. The swim bladder is highly prized as a traditional health food in China and is subject to skyrocketing demand. A single swim bladder can be sold on the black market for thousands of dollars. They are dried and smuggled out of Mexico to China, often through the United States.

Gillnets are also the primary fishing method used to catch other fish and shrimp, which are sold both within Mexico and across the border in the U.S. During the shrimping season, about 435 miles of gillnets are set within the vaquita distribution every day, which is about 4.35 miles of gillnet per remaining vaquita. The shrimp in particular is an important export to American markets, which gives American consumers leverage to influence the Mexican government to remove all gillnets immediately.

CIRVA is calling on Mexico and the U.S. to work together to save the vaquita from extinction. If the mortality from fishing nets is not eliminated, the vaquita could vanish from the Earth as soon as 2018. The survival of the vaquita is heavily dependent upon implementing significant changes in the gear used by the fisheries within the Gulf of California.

   
Totoaba swim bladder
A totoaba swim bladder seized by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Click to enlarge.

 

 

Toboaba and Vaquita
A Toboaba and Vaquita, both caught in gill nets in the northern Gulf of California.

The Vaquita and The Marine Mammal Center
The Marine Mammal Center is a member of the VaquitaCPR team – a public and private international collaboration of conservation scientists, animal care specialists and marine mammal veterinarians led by the Mexican government. We are working with more than 40 subject matter experts from more than 20 institutions across the globe to continue gillnet removal and to develop a temporary sanctuary for the vaquita within the Gulf of California.

The recent precipitous population decline (50% over the last year) has led to plans to attempt to save individuals and place them in temporary protection until all gillnets are out of the water. This type of ex-situ effort has been used with terrestrial mammals and birds to recover a species.

At the same time, the Center is working on a number of other initiatives, including increasing awareness about the vaquita and the threats to its survival, supporting development of alternative fishing gear, and providing administrative support for initiatives such as population surveys. The Center is also providing technical support and training in the investigation of mortality events in the Gulf of California, including the recent deaths reported in March 2017.

Listen to a podcast from Wild Lens about the vaquita (featuring Dr. Frances Gulland, the Center’s Senior Scientist).

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Stay up to date with what is happening to endangered marine mammals.

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Watch a video about the the vaquita:


Souls of the Vermilion Sea: Searching for the Vaquita from Wild Lens on Vimeo.

Other videos:
CNN: Vaquita porpoise nearing extinction
60 Minutes: The Last Vaquitas


Some Good News About the Vaquita to Report
On April 18th, 2015, during Sea Shepherd’s Operation Milagro, vaquitas were spotted swimming in the Sea of Cortez. With just 97 remaining individuals of this species left in existence, it is extremely rare to see one and this was the first time since 2013 the shy porpoise had been spotted. It is even more rare to get video footage of this amazing sight.

Learn more and watch the video.

Vaquita sighting

Photo: Sea Shepherd / Sandra Alba Taken under Aviso de filmación CNANP-00-010

 



Get Your Children Involved:

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, with support from Unite for Literacy, has developed a children's book called Where is the Vaquita, by Sandra Elvin and Debborah Luke. Flip through the book, together with your children, and learn all about the world's smallest cetacean.

 

More Information
The following resources are available for those who would like to learn more about efforts to save the vaquita:


CIRVA Report
November 29-30, 2016
La Jolla, CA
Eighth Meeting of the Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita

Report from the Environmental Investigation Agency
September, 2016
Collateral Damage

Aquarium of the Pacific
Vaquita Conservation

CIRVA Report
May 10-13, 2016
Ensenada, BC, Mexico
Seventh Meeting of the Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita

CIRVA VII Press Release
May 13, 2016
Stronger protection needed to prevent imminent extinction of Mexican porpoise vaquita, new survey finds

Letters from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN)
November 7, 2014
To Chinese Premier Li Keqiang
December 5, 2014
To Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto (Spanish)

Press Release: Center for Biological Diversity
September 29, 2014
Trade Sanctions Sought to Halt Extinction of Mexican Porpoise, Fish

¡Viva Vaquita! Petition
Prevent the Extinction of the Vaquita Porpoise - the world's most endangered marine mammal!

Report of the Fifth Meeting of CIRVA

Additional Reports

Multimedia

Twitter
#vaquita

Press
World's smallest porpoise 'at the edge of extinction' as illegal gillnets take toll
The Guardian, May 14, 2016

Le marsouin du Pacifique, plus petit cétacé du monde, au bord de l’extinction
Le Monde, May 14, 2016

The Vaquita, the World’s Smallest Porpoise, Slips Closer to Extinction
The New York Times, May 14, 2016

Vaquita population dwindles to 60
San Diego Union-Tribune, May 14, 2016

‘Our last chance to save vaquita marina’
Mexico News Daily, May 14, 2016

Vaquita marina rumbo a la extinción, advierten expertos
UniMexicali.com, May 14, 2016

Intensifican acciones para la protección de la vaquita marina
UniMexicali.com, May 13, 2016

Comité Internacional discute recuperación de vaquita marina
UniMexicali.com, May 13, 2016

Experts: Mexico's Vaquita Porpoise Headed Toward Extinction
ABC News, May 13, 2016

World’s smallest porpoise nears extinction, fishing closure and international action are last hope
World Wildlife Federation, May 13, 2016

Experts: Mexico's Vaquita porpoise headed toward extinction
Fox News, May 13, 2016

Experts: Mexico's Vaquita porpoise headed toward extinction
Seattle Times, May 13, 2016

Mexico Moves to Save Endangered Porpoise
New York Times, February 28, 2015

With only 100 left, the small vaquita porpoise is on the verge of extinction
Washington Post, December 7, 2014

New evidence that Mexican authorities are not adequately enforcing fishing regulations to protect vaquitas
IUCN SSC – Cetacean Specialist Group, December 7, 2014

A Porpoise Is Ensnared by Criminals and Nets
The New York Times, September 14, 2014

OPINIÓN: La vaquita marina en peligro, el papel de México, EU y China (Spanish)
CNNMéxico.com, August 17, 2014

Vaquita Porpoise Faces Imminent Extinction—Can It Be Saved?
National Geographic, August 13, 2014

Vaquita, the Mexican porpoise, nears extinction
Science Magazine, August 4, 2014

Crimen Organizado opera tráfico ilegal de buche de totoaba (Spanish)
Mexicali Digital, August 4, 2014

刺網捕魚製花膠誤殺瀕危小海牛 (Chinese)
Next Media Interactive (Hong Kong), August 3, 2014

China bladder trade sending porpoise to extinction
Associated Press, San Diego Union Tribune, August 1, 2014

Hacer cumplir la ley para preservar la vaquita marina, pide Aridjis a Peña (Spanish)
La Jornada, July 31, 2014

Furniture firm owner allegedly smuggled endangered sea species
LA Times, January 9, 2015


The Challenge of Saving the Vaquita

On December 5, 2014, 90 fishing boats were photographed inside the area of the Gulf of California that is set aside as a refuge for the vaquita.

Boat photos in spanish
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