The vaquita porpoise is one of the smallest cetaceans (the group that includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises) in the entire world, fully grown at just under five feet long. Unfortunately, it’s also one of the most endangered. There are presently believed to be fewer than 30 vaquitas left, and their numbers are falling rapidly. In fact, the most recent estimates put the number of vaquitas at around 12. Urgent action is needed if this beautiful species is going to survive.
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The vaquita is a fairly recently discovered porpoise, first known only from skulls which were described in 1958. As these porpoises are very elusive and wary of humans, they managed to remain largely undetected for a long time. They are also only found in one small area of the ocean: the northernmost corner of the Gulf of California, in an area known as the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve. Though we now know much more about vaquitas than what their skulls look like, there is still much about their life cycle and habits that remains unknown.
There may not be much time to learn this valuable information, as this porpoise is on the brink of extinction. Though vaquitas are not hunted directly, they often become tangled in fishing nets along with many other species, including humpback whales, great white sharks, hammerhead sharks, and more. The target of these nets is the totoaba – a type of sea bass that, like the vaquita, has become critically endangered. Fishing for this bass was declared illegal in 1975, but many poachers continue to do so, further endangering the populations of both the totoaba and the vaquita and pushing them toward the point of no return.
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The illegal trade in totoaba has become very difficult to eliminate, as they bring in much more money than legal species. Many on the side of the fishing industry claim that the nets are not the main threat to the vaquita, and point to the damming of the Colorado River in the United States, which has led to less freshwater flowing into the gulf, disrupting the salt levels. Some even try to claim that the vaquita does not exist. Efforts are underway to test and implement alternative methods of fishing that would replace the devastating gill nets, and promote fisheries of more plentiful species like the corvina drum. Mexico has recently instituted a permanent ban on gill nets, though enforcement in coastal communities is often difficult.
However, these efforts may not be enough to save the vaquita, as their numbers have decreased so much that it may not be possible for them to maintain a genetically diverse population. A plan is underway to use trained dolphins supplied by the US Navy to herd the remaining vaquita into a safe area of the gulf, to protect them and allow for further study including possible captive breeding programs. Organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund, The Porpoise Conservation Society, and VIVA Vaquita are all working hard to make sure these pint-sized porpoises don’t disappear forever. Check out their websites to see how you can help!
Bernie's Bonus Fun Fact: The vaquita's full common name is "vaquita marina", which means "little cow of the sea" in Spanish.