VaquitaCPR Field Operation Period Ends

VaquitaCPR Field Operation Period Ends

Scientists Report on Operation Outcomes

“While field operations end today, VaquitaCPR stands for Conservation, Protection and Recovery of the vaquita porpoise” said Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, lead scientist from SEMARNAT for CIRVA and a lead scientist with VaquitaCPR “We will not give up, we will continue our efforts to save the vaquita.”

SAN FELIPE, BAJA, MEXICO —  The Mexican government (SEMARNAT) and scientists from VaquitaCPR said today that field operations in the Gulf of California have come to a close as planned on November 10.

This weekend, VaquitaCPR, alongside an independent review panel, will carefully review the results of the field operations and will determine, through the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), the next actions for the conservation, protection and recovery of the endangered porpoise, and will then notify the Mexican government through a technical recommendation.

VaquitaCPR operations started in October and the team of 65 scientists from nine countries was on the water for five full days and eight partial days during the operational time frame. Partial days occurred when winds were too great for safe and effective field work during part of the day.  Conditions on 11 days were too windy for any field work to occur.

Scientists reported vaquita sightings on eight out of 13 field days.  In total, 32 confirmed sighting events of vaquitas were recorded, including probable repeat sightings over the course of a day. It is important to note that these sightings do not represent a population estimate. Sighting events involved one to three vaquitas, with an average group size of about two individuals.  VaquitaCPR rescue teams deployed nets on three days and two vaquitas were captured during field operations .

The first animal, an immature female, was released after veterinarians determined she was not adapting to human care. The second animal, a mature female, that wasn’t pregnant or lactating, was released after not being able to adapt to human care at “El Nido.” During the second release emergency medical care was required. Despite heroic efforts by the veterinary team to save the animal’s life, she did not survive. A necropsy (animal autopsy) was performed and samples were submitted for further analyses to better understand the cause of death.  A full report will be issued when all information and analysis is complete. Fresh tissue samples from both specimens were transferred to specialized laboratories for genetic studies and tissue culture.

Because of the vaquitas’ reaction towards human care, VaquitaCPR lead scientists made a unanimous recommendation to an independent review panel of experts to cease the capture portion of the operation.  The independent review panel agreed with this recommendation. VaquitaCPR suspended catch operations on November 4 and changed the operational focus to conducting photographic identification of individual animals, to better refine our understanding of abundance and ranging patterns.

Acoustic recording devices (CPODs) have been used throughout the VaquitaCPR project to help detect and locate vaquitas.  A sampling grid of 36 sites was designed to monitor vaquita acoustic activities in the previously known zone of high activity. The sites covered mainly the central, southwest and west portions of the Vaquita refuge. Acoustic detectors were deployed in this grid on October 11 and were exchanged daily when weather allowed. Due to the dynamics of the acoustic detections, it was decided to deploy eight more acoustic detectors in the northeast portion of the Refuge on October 29. Hence, the grid was expanded to a total of 44 monitoring sites.  In total, 112 acoustic encounters with vaquitas were gathered from 21 of the 44 sampling sites. Acoustic activity was very localized, mainly occurring in five sites.  Scientists used the acoustic encounters to determine which areas to focus on during efforts to locate vaquitas and this information can be used to concentrate long-term protection and monitoring efforts. Similar to sighting events, acoustic detections do not represent a population estimate.

“Vaquita conservation is part of the President’s agenda and will remain a top priority ” said Mexico’s Minister of the Environment Rafael Pacchiano Alamán in an interview yesterday.

Conservation projects supported by the Mexican Government through the Ministry of the Environment (SEMARNAT) and the Mexican Navy (SEMAR) have also been working alongside of VaquitaCPR for the conservation of the vaquita. These projects include support for gillnet ban enforcement and gillnet removal, key conservation elements for the long term survival of vaquita.

“While field operations end today, VaquitaCPR stands for Conservation, Protection and Recovery of the vaquita porpoise” said Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, lead scientist from SEMARNAT for CIRVA and a lead scientist with VaquitaCPR. “We will not give up, we will continue our efforts to save the vaquita.”

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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.