ABOUT THE VAQUITA
The vaquita is on the verge of extinction. It is the most critically endangered marine mammal in the world. This rare, tiny, elusive porpoise—similar to, but smaller than a dolphin—was first discovered in 1958 and is only found in Mexico’s Northern Gulf of California. Today, we are on the brink of losing the species forever. Hundreds have drowned from entanglement in gillnets and there are fewer than 30 vaquitas alive today.
Vaquitas are a truly unique species adapted to a curious marine habitat. All porpoises live in highly productive waters, which are typically found in northern areas. Vaquitas have made their home in the northern Gulf of California thousands of miles from their nearest relative in Peru. Despite being next to one of the hottest deserts in the world, the waters where vaquitas live are not clear, tropical waters but waters clouded with life because of the strong currents and nutrients stirred from the muddy bottom deposited by thousands of years of runoff from the Colorado River. Vaquitas sport an extra tall dorsal fin and long flippers that likely help them dissipate the heat.
In an unprecedented move demonstrating its commitment to conservation, the Mexican government instituted a two-year gillnet fishing ban throughout the vaquitas’ range, provided financial compensation to affected fishermen, and established strong enforcement measures. Despite these critical efforts, illegal gillnet fishing continues, targeting a specific fish that is also endangered called totoaba. The totoaba is not caught for food. Its swim bladder is highly prized in Asian markets for its purported cosmetic and medicinal value.
Dr. Sam Ridgway, President of the National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF), underscores that “experts from around the world have come together for the vaquita in much the same way conservationists did to save the California condor from extinction in the 1980s. We recognize the challenges, but the conservation and scientific communities feel a duty to act without delay and hope our collective expertise can make a difference.”
VAQUITA POPULATION DECLINE
Between 1997 and 2016, gillnets killed hundreds of vaquitas. Their estimated population dropped from approximately 600 to fewer than 30 animals.
GILLNET EXCLUSION ZONE
Until all deadly gillnets are removed, the Mexican government has determined that emergency action is essential to remove a number of the remaining animals from their dangerous environment and relocate them to a safe haven in the Northern Gulf of California until their natural habitat is gillnet free. The Consortium for Vaquita Conservation, Protection, and Recovery (Vaquita CPR) was created to develop and implement an urgent conservation action plan aimed at preventing the animals’ extinction.
A temporary 2-year ban of all gillnets was recently made permanent within the vaquitas’ habitat. A program to replace gillnets with alternative fishing gear is underway. However, the decline of vaquitas has continued through the period of the temporary ban with hundreds of illegal nets being retrieved by Sea Shepherd’s Operation Milagro in collaboration with the Mexican Navy. Another program to remove derelict fishing gear, or ghost nets, from the vaquitas’ habitat added the support of SEMARNAT and WWF-Mexico. The ongoing decline of vaquitas despite these efforts is what led the international recovery team to recommend VaquitaCPR as the best chance to save the vaquita.