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 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.
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.