VaquitaCPR: Project Esperanza

In the wake of VaquitaCPR’s bold vaquita rescue operations, the team has launched Project Esperanza aimed at gathering critical data on vaquitas to inform conservation and protection efforts. Project Esperanza involves three aims:

Photo-identification will allow scientists to identify individual animals, improve our understanding of vaquitas’ life history, particularly survival rates, and estimate the minimum number of vaquitas that are alive today.

Acoustic monitoring studies enable scientists to listen in on the ocean environment. Vaquitas can be heard and their location pinpointed, which allows protection and net-pulling efforts to focus on where the animals are spending most of their time.

Remote tissue sampling provides essential living material from vaquitas. Live cells will be transported to San Diego Zoo Global’s Frozen Zoo so that future options can be considered for recovery of this endangered species. Tissue will also be transported to NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center for DNA studies to study their genetic strength and diversity.

These conservation initiatives have been recommended by CIRVA and endorsed by the Scientific Committee of the IWC. Through these initiatives, Project Esperanza aims to support local fishers and organizations working to implement and enhance these efforts.

Global Awareness

VaquitaCPR’s Project Esperanza is also urgently working to raise global awareness of the vaquita crisis. Today, vaquitas are navigating the dangerous waters of the Upper Gulf of California, where gillnets have already taken countless vaquita lives. Unless we gain the world’s support to solve these difficult problems, the last vaquitas will drown in gillnets. Project Esperanza aims to inform and inspire the public to start a conversation about the vaquita crisis and engage in meaningful conservation efforts locally and globally. Saving a species will take each and every one of us – working together to create healthy oceans and thriving coastal communities.

Stop the Demand

The Earth League International is a nonprofit organization entirely focused on intelligence collection and investigation of wildlife trafficking. ELI’s efforts support law enforcement and government agencies in their fight against wildlife crime. ELI is working to address the root of the problem in the fight to save vaquitas through Operation Fake Gold. The team continues to gather information and investigate onsite in Mexico, China, and the US; evaluate information with their crime analysts and intelligence experts; and produce both public and confidential intelligence reports for government and law enforcement authorities in all three countries. ELI aims to create sustainable, long-term change through providing the information necessary to spark concrete actions addressing the demand and market for totoaba.

What can you do?

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

Use your heart

You can make a difference today by supporting VaquitaCPR’s Project Esperanza. Your contribution will directly support the current critical conservation efforts aimed at bringing vaquitas back from the brink of extinction.  

Use your mind

Open your mind to the benefits of choosing sustainably-caught seafood. Talk to your local restaurants, grocers, and other seafood providers about the importance of sustainable fisheries. Increasing the demand for sustainable seafood will support the creation of alternative fishing methods that protect oceans and ecosystems all over the world. 

A multi-institutional effort is underway in the Upper Gulf of California to remove deadly gillnets from the waters that are posing a threat to vaquitas and other aquatic animals. Currently, organizations such as Museo de la Ballena, the Mexican Ministry of the Environment, the Mexican Navy, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are working together with a team of local fishers to find and remove illegal nets. VaquitaCPR’s Project Esperanza is directly supporting the net-pulling efforts of the Museo de la Ballena to ensure continuation of operations to clear dangerous gillnets from the vaquitas habitat. Project Esperanza aims to provide the species with a chance at survival, while also supporting the good work of local fishers and organizations working together to make a difference.

Acoustic monitoring efforts are ongoing in the Upper Gulf of California to detect the presence of vaquitas and track their movements. Acoustic equipment known as CPODS are placed in the water column throughout the vaquita habitat and are set to autonomously detect vaquitas and collect data over a determined period of time. The data collected provides information about the species, their distribution, and their use of the environment, while also informing population estimates and conservation measures. A team of local fishers work directly with Armando Jaramillo from CONABIO and Gustavo Cardenas from INECC to implement the acoustics program. Project Esperanza is supporting the acoustic detection efforts, and specifically, providing support to the fishers deploying and retrieving the acoustic equipment.

VaquitaCPR’s Project Esperanza is urgently working to raise global awareness of the vaquita crisis. Today, vaquitas are navigating the dangerous waters of the Upper Gulf of California, where gillnets have already taken countless vaquita lives. Unless we gain the world’s support to solve these difficult problems, the last vaquitas will drown in gillnets. Project Esperanza aims to inform and inspire the public to start a conversation about the vaquita crisis and engage in meaningful conservation efforts locally and globally. Saving a species will take each and every one of us – working together to create healthy oceans and thriving coastal communities.

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.