The Vaquita, as defined by the World Wildlife Organization, is ‘the world’s most rare marine mammal.’ These tiny porpoises are on the brink of extinction since the WWF estimates that there are only about 30 individuals left around the world. According to the Marine Mammal Center, ‘vaquita’ means ‘small cow’ in Spanish and is ‘the most endangered of the 128 marine mammals alive in the world today.’ This porpoise lives only in the northern Gulf of California and it’s the only one of its kind that lives in such warm waters. It can also weigh up to 120 pounds and can grow up to 5 feet long. It’s known for having large dark rings around the eyes and dark patches on the lips.
According to Defenders.org, Vaquitas have the most restricted range of any marine cetacean. It was in 1993 when the Mexican government created the Upper Gulf of California Biosphere Reserve to protect the habitats of the vaquitas. However, the smallest and rarest member of the cetacean family (which includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises) have become endangered due to accidental deaths caused by fishing gear.
According to the Comité Internacional Para La Recuperación De La Vaquita (International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita), in 2012 only 200 vaquitas remained. In 2014, CIRVA estimated that half that number had been killed by gillnets. As explained by Defenders.org, gillnets are set both illegally and legally to catch sharks, rays, mackerels, and Chano. But according to the Marine Mammal Center, the biggest culprit for the decline or vaquitas is the illegal trade of an endangered fish species known as the Totoaba.
The Marine Mammal Center says that the Totoaba is a large fish that grows to over six feet long and weighs up to 300 pounds. They are hunted for their swim bladders which are considered to be a rare and a ‘highly prized’ traditional health food in China. Because of the high demand for Totoaba, many gill nets, which are illegally set to catch the fish, end up entrapping the small marine mammals.
A ‘last ditch attempt’ made by an international team of more than 60 scientists and divers ran into issues after they tried to take the vaquitas into human care. According to an article published by The Guardian, a 4-million dollar plan which hoped to have the team capture vaquitas from the wild and take them into human care failed. The plan fell apart when the first vaquita they caught had to be released when it began to display ‘dangerous signs of stress.’
The Guardian article went on to state that shortly after that, a second vaquita was caught but died a few hours after capture. The team then decided that catching any more animals presented too much risk to the species and further attempts were suspended. Now, CIRVA is calling on both Mexico and the United States to halt the use of fishing nets and to implement significant changes in the gear used by the fisheries within the Gulf of California. The Marine Mammal Center is also working with conservation scientists and animal care specialists to create more awareness about vaquitas and the importance of gillnet removal.
Barbara Taylor, who is one of the 60 people in the international team and is part of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said: ‘Saving the vaquita now rests with the Mexican government, which might somehow be able to end the illegal fishing for the Totoaba. And that is a big ask. Otherwise, it is very unlikely that we are going to have vaquitas in a couple of years.’