Vaquita porpoises have puzzled scientists since their discovery in 1958. Regrettably, their populations have gotten much smaller over time due to illegal fishing practices. In this post, we highlight that while these “little cows” may be difficult to protect, we should try everything we can to save them.
The Mysterious Nature of the Vaquita
Vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is the most endangered marine mammal on Earth. Vaquita means “little cow” in Spanish. The name comes from the easily recognizable dark circles around the porpoise’s eyes and lips. Vaquita’s body fades from a dark grey into a white underbelly. As these small cetaceans age, their coloring transitions from a dark grey to a light grey.
They are the smallest cetaceans; adults are only 4-5ft (120-150 cm) and calves are about 2.5ft (75 cm). Interestingly, females grow to be larger than males but males have larger fins. They reach sexual maturity from 3 to 6 years old and researchers believe females give birth every other year to a single calf. Therefore, populations naturally grow at a slow rate.
As members of the toothed whale family, they use echolocation to find their prey. Vaquitas tend to hunt near lagoons and shallow waters. They feed on small fish (such as croakers and sea trout), crustaceans (such as shrimp), and cephalopods (such as squid).
Vaquitas also have the smallest habitat of any marine mammal. In fact, their entire habitat is about 4,476 square-mile area (11 600 Km2) within the northern Gulf of California, Mexico. It roughly corresponds to the size of Connecticut in the USA, or Northern Ireland if you live in Europe.
A survey conducted in 1997 calculated the first precise estimate of their population. Scientists estimated there were a total of 567 individuals. By 2008, the population was down to approximately 245. Tragically, the current estimated population is fewer than 20 individuals. That is a significant population decline!
What’s the catch?
Unsurprisingly, humans are the largest threat to these porpoises as vaquitas have no natural predators. The most significant threat comes from illegal fishing operations across the Gulf of California. Gill nets and long nets set by fishermen to trap large groups of fish, have devastated vaquita populations. Unfortunately, these nets catch anything and everything that comes through their path. Targets range from the intended fish to sea turtles and dolphins. Consequently, the retrieval of these nets is often what kills trapped animals. The bycatch, or unintended catch from these nets, is the biggest cause of Vaquita deaths.
In the Gulf of California, specifically, fishermen are after the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi). Totoabas are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). Mexico and the United States have it listed as an endangered species. Despite these protections, some shameless fishermen sell the prized totoaba swim bladders to Chinese markets for supposed medicinal purposes. Fishermen that sell totoaba receive the equivalent to half a year’s income from legal fishing activities, for just one swim bladder. This practice, however, is unsustainable and totoaba nets were responsible for 65% of the 128 vaquitas caught in gillnets from 1985 to 1992. That is no coincidence as the vaquitas and totoabas are almost identical in size.
Vaquitas have been listed as an endangered species since 1985 under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and since 1994 under Mexico’s equivalent law. The Vaquita Refuge area, created in 2005, was an attempt to help protect the Vaquitas natural habitat. Altogether, it covers about 50% of their distribution. In 2008, the Mexican government implemented a fishing ban inside of this Refuge. In 2015, they implemented a ban on gillnet fishing throughout the entire range.
What can be done to save the vaquitas?
Despite these efforts to protect them, their population is still declining. Attempts were made to bring as many vaquitas as possible into human care until the illegal use of gillnets is solved. Unfortunately, these animals are incredibly sensitive and difficult to catch. They only became stressed or died in attempted rescue events. The current situation is incredibly delicate but results have been possible because of the collaboration between the United States, the Mexican government, researchers, and conservation groups.
In conclusion, one tiny porpoise may not seem that important in the grand scheme of the world’s biodiversity. However, it is important to remember that every species matters, and we may not know for years to come how the decline of the vaquita has impacted the Gulf’s ecology.
The only thing we can do for now is doing our best. This means telling the story of these beautiful animals, raising awareness for sustainable fishing practices, and working to halt the illegal wildlife trade.
Thanks for reading! Check out our other posts on human threats to marine mammals.
For further reading:
- The NOAA fisheries species page for the Vaquita.
- This NPR piece on the relationship between fishermen and the Vaquita.
- This article takes an more focused look at the work being done to help capture and save the few remaining Vaquitas.
- The Vaquita CPR homepage.
- Riofrío-Lazo, M., Arreguín-Sánchez, F., Zetina-Rejón, M. et al. The Ecological Role of the Vaquita, Phocoena sinus, in the Ecosystem of the Northern Gulf of California. Ecosystems 16, 416–433 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10021-012-9618-z
Brianna has a background in marine biology and currently works as a live-aboard deckhand/educator at the Los Angeles Maritime Institute (LAMI). Her research interests include ocean conservation, specifically in the high seas and polar regions, and identifying marine mammal vocalizations in the global soundscape. She is passionate about music and can’t write without coffee.