• Anna Tattelman

Vaquita - The Most Endangered Sea Creature

If you have never heard of the vaquita, you are not alone. This is because they only live in the northern part of the Gulf of California, in Mexico and are the most endangered of the world’s marine mammals!



Close up image of a vaquita's fin!

Appearance

The vaquita is part of the dolphin, whale, and porpoise family and are the smallest of all living cetaceans, at about five feet long. Female vaquitas are longer than males but the males have longer fins. Vaquitas have strong bodies with a rounded head just like a dolphin, and they have black patches around their eyes and lips. Vaquitas also have triangle-shaped dorsal fins in the middle of their backs, which are taller and wider than in other porpoises. These fins may allow vaquitas to lower their body temperatures in warm water. The bellies of the vaquita are light grey, while their backs are dark gray.


Habitat

The vaquita has the smallest geographical range of any whale, dolphin or porpoise. They only live in shallow lagoons of Mexico's northern portion of the Gulf of California. The majority of vaquitas live within an area of 1,519 square miles east of the town of San Felipe, Baja California, which is less than one-fourth of the size of Los Angeles.

The northern part of the Gulf of California is an area that is rich in fish and shrimp, so fishing is a major source of income for the people there. Fishermen use gill nets, which are a method to trap fish, but these nets are the main reason that vaquitas are so endangered. Vaquitas often get accidentally wrapped in the gill nets which can cause them to become badly injured or even drown.


The decrease in the vaquita population is also related to the totoaba fish. Totoabas are large fish that only live in the Gulf of Mexico, just like vaquitas. Since totoaba and vaquita are close in size, for vaquitas, gillnets made for totoaba are the deadliest. Unfortunately, Scientists agree that for vaquitas to survive in the wild, gillnet fishing must end within the vaquita habitat.


Since fisherman gillnets were the main reason that the population of vaquitas were decreasing, in 2005, the Mexican Government banned the use of gillnets to protect them. However, after giving close attention to the species of Vaquita after the ban of gillnets, scientists observed that the population continued to decrease. It is thought that there may be less than 30 individuals left in existence!










The photos above show vaquita's caught in a net.



Lifespan and Reproduction

Most vaquitas live for at least 21 years which is actually a short life span compared to an average dolphin and many types of whales. By three to six years old, vaquitas have already reached sexual maturity. When a female gets pregnant, the process lasts about 10 to 11 months. Females are expected to give birth every other year to a calf that is about 2.5 feet long and 16 pounds. Females give birth usually between the months of February and April.


Behavior and Diet

These marine mammals are characterized as shy, and interaction with boats is avoided. They do not move in large groups, unlike many other species of porpoise. The vaquita is seen alone or in pairs in the vast majority of sightings.

Vaquitas have a very limited diet, since they only live in one location. Vaquitas feed on small fish, cephalopods, such as octopuses or squids, and crustaceans, for example shrimp.


Interesting Facts

  • Like other porpoises, vaquitas use sonar to communicate and navigate.

  • The vaquita was first identified in 1958 by scientists.

  • Vaquita in Spanish means 'little cow.'

  • Scientists are able to classify individual vaquitas based on a single characteristic.



Sources:

https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/vaquita

https://www.uw360.asia/10-facts-about-the-vanishing-vaquita/

https://porpoise.org/2019/04/vaquita-continues-decline/




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