The vaquita is not only the world's smallest cetacean, but also the most endangered marine mammal. It’s currently estimated that only 10-15 vaquita remain and their population has decreased at an astonishing rate.
UPDATE: With just 10-15 vaquitas remaining and the idea of rescuing some by capturing them and placing them in human care no longer considered viable, conservation action is now focused on enforcement, alternative gear development and net removal, with enhanced effort during the totoaba spawning season. For current information on the vaquita's population status and conservation efforts, including necropsy reports, please see the latest CIRVA report.
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 March 2019 presented an even more dire estimate, finding no more than 22 vaquitas during the summer of 2018. This represents a decline of more than 95% since 1997.
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 buoyancy. 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 in the next few years. The survival of the vaquita is heavily dependent upon implementing significant changes in the gear used by the fisheries within the Gulf of California.
The Vaquita and The Marine Mammal Center
The Marine Mammal Center is working with an international collaboration of conservation scientists, animal care specialists and marine mammal veterinarians to save the vaquita through efforts like gillnet removal. The Center is also helping raise 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. In addition, the Center provides technical support and training in the investigation of mortality events in the Gulf of California.
Listen to a podcast from Wild Lens about the vaquita (featuring Dr. Frances Gulland, the Center’s Senior Scientist from 1994-2019).
Stay up to date with what is happening to endangered marine mammals.
Interested in the current plight of the vaquita and the efforts to help save the earth’s most critically endangered marine mammal? Check out National Geographic’s new documentary SEA OF SHADOWS. Now playing in select theaters.
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.