The vaquita is a species of porpoise and it is the most endangered marine mammal in the world. Scientists estimate that there may be only 10 to 30 vaquitas left on Earth.
About the Vaquita
Vaquitas are a small porpoise that are around 5 feet long and weigh 120 pounds. They can be easily identified by their rounded mouth and black circles around their eyes. They also have a large dorsal fin. Vaquitas live in Mexico’s Gulf of California and have the smallest living range of any porpoise, whale, or dolphin- their entire range is only 4000 square kilometers in the Sea of Cortez.
Vaquitas were only discovered in 1950, when their skulls washed up on shore. By 1958, scientists realized they were a new species different from the harbor porpoise. However, only 44 years after their discovery, they were already endangered.
The vaquita population’s biggest threat over the past half a century is gillnetting and getting entangled in fishing gear. In the Gulf of California, fishermen often try to catch the totoaba fish. Totoaba are captured for their swim bladders, the pouch of air that keeps them afloat, and unfortunately, vaquitas are often also caught because they are similar in size to the totoaba. The swim bladder of totoaba fish are sold to Asia at extremely high prices, making totoaba fishing extremely profitable. Over the past years, vaquitas have gotten caught in nets because of it.
Between 1997 and 2008, the vaquita population decreased at a rate of 8% per year, and then decreased at a rate of 40% per year from 2011 to 2016. Some scientists say there may be less than 10 vaquitas left today.
While the vaquita’s numbers are still frighteningly low these days, there have been successes along the way.
In 1993, Mexico made the Upper Zone Biosphere Reserve for vaquitas and also made the refuge free of shrimp trawlers, which are ships that carry a huge net behind them while moving to maximize the fish that are caught.
In 2014, the Mexican government started banning gillnetting in the zones where vaquitas live. Gillnetting is when fishermen put up a wall of net that is invisible to fish. A fish’s gills will end up getting caught on the net, but oftentimes, other mammals may unintentionally get caught. Unfortunately, It has been difficult to enforce the gillnetting ban because people still use it illegally in areas. Vaquitas still wind up in fishing nets.
In 2008, a group of scientists from all over the world also embarked on a journey to look for vaquitas. Anna Hall, Porpoise Conservation society president and one of the researchers, says, “In one day, we managed to find half of the existing population. That is both exciting and terribly depressing at the same time.”
CIRVA, International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita was also established, with the task of helping the vaquita recover.
How can you help?
You can help by purchasing and supporting Mexican seafood products like fish and shrimp that have not been caught using gillnets.
International save the vaquita day is set to be on July 24 this year, and you can participate in the event by listening to speakers from all over the world. Here is more information, including the time of the event (it is going to be online this year): https://vaquita.mx/.
You can also spread awareness about the vaquita by signing and sharing petitions such as this one started by the porpoise conservation society: https://www.change.org/p/save-mexico-s-vaquita-porpoise-from-imminent-extinction/u/27321867
It is possible to save the vaquita if everyone works together. We still have time!