Vaquita porpoises have been disappearing at an alarming rate because they drown in illegal fishing nets in the Gulf of California. With a team of 90 experts from 9 countries, VaquitaCPR (Conservation, Protection and Rescue) set out on a courageous path to buy the vanishing vaquitas more time on the planet. We attempted to locate and rescue the remaining vaquitas from extinction and bring them into a temporary ocean sanctuary while the complex issues surrounding fishing in their habitat could be solved. It was a plan embraced by conservationists all over the world. Sadly our rescue plans were suspended because vaquitas reacted poorly to being in a new environment. But with fewer than 15 vaquitas now remaining, fighting to save them is more important than ever.

Now, the story of the vaquita is being told in a new documentary film. Sea of Shadows just had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and we’re all hopeful that it will find a wide audience that cares about ocean conservation. Watch more from the film’s director and one of the VaquitaCPR scientists featured in the movie.

Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho
International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita
"It was clear that if we did not take vaquitas into a save haven, under human care, they would be killed in gillnets used by illegal fishers. Any unexpected single event can drive a vulnerable species to extinction, and this can happen in a blink. Captive care is a potentially valuable but complex tool for recovering marine mammals. We have the ability through technology to determine almost in real time where vaquitas are living in the Gulf of California. That knowledge can advise enforcement agencies about where the vaquitas are and help protect the area from human activity. With the few remaining vaquitas in a small habitat, enforcement against illegal fishing can happen and I also believe agreement with fishing communities is possible. The vaquita is a very resourceful animal. If illegal fishing stops killing them, they will thrive."
Dr. Barbara Taylor
"With both no sign that the 40-year rate of decline had been lessened by the gillnet ban and no sign that the number of nets being pulled during totoaba season was decreasing, an attempt had to be made to remove vaquitas from their critically dangerous habitat. Critically endangered species can rapidly accelerate down the slide towards extinction and need both efforts in the wild but also options to save them outside the wild far in advance of the need to use those options."
Dr. Randy Wells
"An incredible team of experts from around the world, all of whom care deeply about the future of this little porpoise, gave our best efforts to try to save the vaquitas. Determining that our approach was not going to be successful was devastating. A recent re-sighting of an identifiable presumed mother with two different calves in two consecutive years gives some hope for the species to be able to eventually recover should the threats be removed. We also hope the lessons from VaquitaCPR will be taken to heart with regards to other declining populations and species of small cetaceans, and that conservation efforts, including ex situ options, will be considered while sufficient numbers remain to support the necessary testing of their viability."
Jorge Rickards
“The VaquitaCPR efforts were a bold move and as they end, we urge all those who care about the vaquita to show similar courage and commitment to ensure a gillnet-free Upper Gulf of California. As difficult as the last few weeks have been, we have witnessed a small glimmer of hope for the vaquita and it is our collective responsibility to do all we can to ensure a safe and healthy home for vaquitas and the new calves we have seen. Safeguarding the vaquita’s habitat is our one – and only – chance to save the vaquita.”
Dr. Andrew Read
"We had simply exhausted all other possible avenues for preventing the extinction of the vaquita. Despite the best intentions of the Government of Mexico, it had become clear that conservation actions on the ground - such as enforcing the vaquita refuge and gill net ban - would never be successful. There was simply no other option. It was an honor to participate in VaquitaCPR and to work alongside so many colleagues I respect and admire. From a personal perspective, one of my most powerful experiences was watching so many individuals, each at the very pinnacle of their professions, put aside their egos to work as a team toward a common goal."

Rescue Efforts: The Details

VaquitaCPR’s goal was to bring vaquitas into temporary human care until all gillnets for shrimp and finfish were banned and removed from their habitat. Particularly harmful are the illegal nets to catch a large fish, the totoaba, which is butchered for its swim bladder, smuggled to China and Hong Kong, and sold for thousands of dollars each. Along with the totoaba and masses of other marine life, vaquitas get entangled in these nets and drown. As we prepared for this bold conservation endeavor, the world’s best biologists and veterinarians joined our efforts.  Read the details of the rescue plan here, and the scientific paper that summarizes how the project went and lessons we learned as we continue our work to save the world’s most endangered marine mammals.

But the story doesn’t end here. And we need your help to write the ending.

Vaquitas are vanishing. Fast. The problem is so simple and yet extremely complex. If we can remove illegal nets and prevent more from entering the water, we have a chance at saving vaquitas from extinction. But that will take the might of the people of San Felipe, the government of Mexico, and the entire international community.

Consider these conundrums. Can alternative fishing gear that does not kill vaquitas be developed in time to save the species? We can’t save the vaquita and drive fishers to extinction. How do you fight an illegal fishery that offers wealth in a climate of poverty? We need all hands on deck to save not just the vaquita, but also the fishing communities in Baja. And we don’t have a moment to spare.

Here's what you an do to save the Vaquita from extinction.

Use your heart. You can make a difference today by supporting the multi-institutional effort to remove deadly gillnets from the Gulf, which includes the Mexican Ministry of the Environment, the Mexican Navy, Museo de la Ballena, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

Use your voice. We owe it to each of the remaining vaquitas to sound an alarm that is heard round the world. Help us tell their story. Talk about vaquitas that are drowning, fishermen who are struggling, and the illegal fishery that is to blame. Talk about it at the water cooler and at the dinner table. And talk about how we still have time to pull them back from the edge of extinction. Then start sharing. Tweet it, post it, and blog it. #vaquitacpr @vaquitacpr

The VaquitaCPR team is hard at work to determine our next steps, and we are utilizing the expertise of our vaquita scientists to guide the way. Updates will be posted on this website.

Please stay tuned.

To each and every one of our supporters, partners, colleagues, friends, and family members… thank you. Thank you for caring about vaquitas. Thank you for showing up. And thank you for not giving up.

  • In Dec 2018 alone, 41 illegal, active fishing nets were found and pulled out of the Vaquita Refuge in Mexico. In January, violence slowed down these efforts. VaquitaCPR partner - @museodelaballena - needs support to help safely pull nets, saving vaquita lives and employing legal fishers to help. .
#vaquitacpr #savethevaquita #vaquita #marinemammals
  • #Repost @wildlensinc with @make_repost
Amazing collaborations between #LocalCommunities & NGOs has been the reason for the success of many #conservation projects, but will this one be enough to #SavetheVaquita from #extinction? Find out more by following the link in our bio.
  • #Repost @seaofshadows
So thrilled to announce that the legendary @natgeo has joined the fight to save the vaquita and will be bringing #SeaofShadowsFilm to a theater near you. Welcome to the team! #cutthenet #vaquitaundercover
  • #Repost @seaofshadows with @make_repost
Congratulations to Team SOS and thank you to everyone at @sundanceorg for the support! Winning the Audience Award means people responded to the story of the vaquita and will educate others about our fight. #cutthenet #vaquitaundercover #seaofshadowsfilm #savethevaquita #vaquitacpr
  • Fantastic review in the Hollywood Reporter for Sea of Shadows!  Great mention of @vaquitacpr. Our part in the film is already making a difference and raising awareness of the endangered vaquita porpoise.
#vaquita #seaofshadowsfilm #savethevaquita #vaquitacpr #seaofshadowssos #seaofshadows #marinemammals #4aporpoise #hollywoodreporter @seaofshadows @leonardodicaprio @hollywoodreporter @elephantleague
  • #Repost @elephantleague
Operation FAKE GOLD - A groundbreaking investigation into wildlife crime by the Elephant Action League (EAL)
This is what is killing the Vaquita, the rarest porpoise in the world, as a by-catch in the illegal gillnets. It is the swim bladder (maw) of a large Mexican fish called #Totoaba, for the black Chinese market.
It has more value than gold, up to 47 USD/gram, and dangerous "Totoaba Cartels" are involved in the poaching and trafficking of the maw.

EAL’s Wildlife Crime Division (WCD) has worked tirelessly to gather the intelligence needed by authorities to disrupt the totoaba supply chain, and ultimately, curb illegal fishing in the Gulf of California. Much of the detailed data gathered during Operation Fake Gold only appears in a Confidential Intelligence Brief (CIB) that has been prepared and submitted to law enforcement authorities in Mexico and the United States.

Finally, through all these months, our work and activities have been filmed as part of the most significant documentary on the vaquita to date. The title of the documentary is “Vaquita – Sea of Ghosts” and it is produced by Terra Mater Factual Studios and Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way, and directed by Richard Ladkani/Malaika Pictures, in collaboration with Wild Lens Inc.. It will be released in January 2019. 
In the picture, EAL's director Andrea Crosta inspecting a seizure of totoaba maw in Hong Kong (Credit: Gary Stokes). ------------------------------------------------
Download the report here:
#savethevaquita #oceans #conservation #oceanconservation #leonardodicaprio #AndreaCrosta @richardladkani #SeaOfGhosts #VaquitaSeaOfGhosts #terramaterfactualstudios #OperationFakeGold #SeaOfShadowsFilm #sundancefilmfestival #sundance #sundancefilmfestival2019 #vaquita #vaquitacpr @seaofshadows

The Vaquita is not only the world’s smallest cetacean, but also the most endangered marine mammal. Less than 30 vaquitas remain.

With fewer than 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 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 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.

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. The survival of the vaquita is heavily dependent upon implementing significant changes in the gear used by the fisheries within the Gulf of California.

In 2017, VaquitaCPR set out on a courageous path to buy the vanishing vaquita porpoise more time on the planet. With a team of 90 experts from 9 countries, an attempt was made to rescue the remaining vaquitas from extinction and bring them into a temporary sanctuary. Sadly, the rescue plans were suspended because vaquitas reacted poorly to being in a new environment and tragically an adult female died. With fewer than 30 vaquitas remaining, the risk was too high to continue rescue operations, but the risk of extinction is also too high to give up, so scientists’ focus now is on protecting the vaquita’s habitat from illegal fishing.

Vaquita Porpoise

CLASSIFICATION: Class Mammalia, Order Cetacea (whales), Suborder Odontoceti (toothed whales), Family Phocoenidae (porpoises), scientific name Phocoena sinus

DESCRIPTION: The vaquita is dark gray to light gray to white and is counter-shaded with a dark-gray dorsal and white ventral. It has a distinct dark ring around each eye, dark gray lipstick-like markings and a dark stripe extending from the chin to the flippers. It has a relatively taller and more falcate (curved-back) dorsal fin than other porpoise species.

SIZE: The vaquita is one of the world’s smallest cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) reaching a maximum length of 5 ft. (1.5 m).

RANGE: The vaquita lives only in the upper Gulf of California; it has the most restricted range of any cetacean.

HABITAT: Vaquitas mostly inhabit shallow, murky coastal waters.

DIET: Mostly eat bottom or near-bottom dwelling fishes and squids.

REPRODUCTION: After a 10- to 11-month gestation, the female gives birth to a single calf that nurses for 6 to 8 months. Most calves are born from February to May.

LIFESPAN: Up to 21 or more years.

STATUS: The vaquita is the most critically endangered marine mammal species.

Interesting Facts

  1. Vaquitas were scientifically discovered as a new species in 1958.
  2. The vaquita is also called “vaquita marina” and the Gulf of California harbor porpoise. Vaquita is Spanish for “little cow” and “vaquita marina” is Spanish for “little sea cow.”
  3. The vaquita, like other porpoises, differs from dolphins in several ways. Porpoises lack a beak while dolphins tend to have more prominent beaks. Porpoises have spade-shaped teeth whereas dolphins’ teeth are conical. Porpoises also tend to have triangular dorsal fins, rather than the falcate dorsal fins of most dolphins.
  4. While most porpoises inhabit cold waters, water temperatures in the vaquita’s habitat can exceed 32°C (90°F) in the summer and fall. Its proportionally larger dorsal fin and flippers help a vaquita offload extra body heat in warmer waters.
  5. Vaquitas are polydactylous—they have an extra digit in each flipper.
  6. The vaquita’s entire range is about 4,000 km2—nearly the size of the state of
    Rhode Island.
  7. Vaquitas live about a four-and-a-half-hour drive from San Diego.
  8. Vaquitas tend to be solitary. The only stable social groups are made up of mother-calf pairs.
  9. Vaquitas produce series of short, intense, high-frequency clicks for echolocation and possibly communication. They rely on echolocation to navigate and hunt in dark or murky waters where vision is of little use.
  10. The clicks that vaquitas produce probably lie outside the hearing range of their fish and squid prey, allowing the vaquitas to sneak up on their prey.
  11. Scientists use arrays of underwater hydrophones to “listen” for a vaquita’s distinctive clicks. This technique helps scientists obtain more accurate population estimates for the vaquita.