These cute guys are called ‘Vaquitas‘ (Phocoena sinus).
The vaquita wasn’t discovered until 1958 and only half a century later we are on the brink of losing them forever.
Vaquitas are the smallest and most endangered species of the infraorder Cetacea in the world and are endemic to the northern end of the Gulf of California.
They are distinguishable by the dark rings surrounding their eyes, patches on their lips, and a line that extends from their dorsal fins to their mouths.
Their backs are a dark grey that fades to their white undersides. As vaquitas mature, the shades of grey lighten.
Females vaquitas tend to grow larger than males with females being an average of 4.6ft in length and males averaging 4.4ft in length.
Their average lifespan is similar to a harbour porpoise.
Vaquitas flippers are proportionately larger than those of other porpoises, and their skull is smaller and broader than in other members of the genus.
Vaquita’s tend to chose habitats with turbid waters because of their high nutrient content because it attracts all the food that they rely on- small fish, squid and crustaceans. When they are hunting, they dive smoothly and surface again slowly. They spend most of their time under the water and so are not often seen by humans.
Some scientists think that their unique facial markings play a role in helping them hunt food, which they do using echolocation. This is a technique used by lots of whales, dolphins and porpoises and involves making high pitched clicks that bounce off objects around them. The sound that comes back gives the vaquita information that helps them decide if it’s dinner or not.
They also live in shallow, murky lagoons along shorelines, they rarely swim deeper than 30 metres and are known to survive in lagoons so shallow that their bodies protrude above the surface; because they prefer shallow water along the shoreline which puts them right in the danger zone for the illegal fishing nets.
Vaquita’s are most sighted in water 11-50 metres deep from the coast over silt and clay bottoms.
The area they call home is just 2,235 square kilometres, although it is thought that they may roam a bit further south along the Mexican coast.
Vaquita’s have been critically endangered since 1996. The population has dropped drastically in the last few years.
Nearly one out of every five vaquita get entangled and drown in gillnets intended for other marine species like the totoaba, a critically endangered fish also found in the upper Gulf of California.
Entanglement in gillnets set for totoaba was the primary cause that brought the vaquita to low levels by the mid-1970s.
Totoaba were overfished by the mid-1970s and were listed as endangered by Mexico in 1975, and by the US in 1979.
Totoaba (Totoaba macdonalds) is a species of marine fish endemic to the Gulf of California in Mexico. They are the largest species in the drum family. Individuals can live up to 15 years and spawn only once a year.
They have been illegal to catech since 1976 when placed on the Mexican Endaangered Species List.
Today, international trade in totoaba is banned under CITES but high demand from China for its swim bladder has led to a corresponding boom in illegal totoaba fishing in the past few years.
Thousands of swim bladders are dried and smuggled out of Mexico, often through the United States. Fishermen receive around $4,000 for each pound of totoaba swim bladder, equivalent to half a year’s income from legal fishing activities.
It is this illegal trade that is currently driving the precipitous decline in vaquita numbers.
No one knows exactly how many are now alive; by 2018 fewer than 19 were left, researchers estimate. Unless the species’ decline can be slowed, vaquitas likely will become extinct before 2021, which raises the question: How did we let this happen?
In 2005 Mexico’s government made part of the gulf a vaquita refuge. But the population kept falling—from more than 200 individuals in 2008 to fewer than 30 in 2016.
Unable to protect vaquitas in the wild, the government made an unprecedented attempt to protect them in captivity.
In 2017 an international team of scientists, veterinarians, and conservationists gathered in Mexico to stage VaquitaCPR, a multimillion-dollar project to transfer half of the remaining vaquitas into protected sea pens until their safety in the wild could be assured.
The team captured two females—but when both began showing signs of stress, they were released.
One of them didn’t survive, and VaquitaCPR was discontinued.
Wildlife biologist Matthew Podolsky contends that “even if that vaquita hadn’t died and the capture effort had been successful, the root of the problem would still remain”: Impoverished poachers, greedy cartels, and corrupt officials would still care more about catching totoabas than protecting vaquitas.
Saving the vaquita’s?
What are conservation and charitable organisations doing to save the vaquita’s?
Global net retrieval and acoustic monitoring: WWF are trying to achieve a gillnet-free Upper Gulf of California in order to protect the vaquita’s natural habitat.
From October 2016- July 2017 alone this initiative retrieved more than 400 nets from vaquitas habitats.
International cooperation to boost vaquita- safe fishing: in July 2016 President Barack Obama and President Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico announced bilateral collaboration measures to protect the vaquita.
As a follow up to this meeting and to the recommendation CIRVA presented in its vaquita report (5th Meeting of the International Committee for the recovery of the vaquita), Mexico’s National Institute of Fisheries (INAPESCA) and WWF Mexico established an International committee of experts to further develop and urgently implement vaquita- safe fishing technologies. A protocol and guidelines to catch shrimp with vaquita-safe technology is expected soon.
Defenders of wildlife.
In 2005 Defenders of Wildlife, Greenpeace, Teyeliz, Comanno and CEMDA reached an agreement with the Environmental Ministry to create the vaquita refuge area.
In 2007 Defenders of Wildlife helped create the shark fishery regulation that banned the use of surface gillnets that captured vaquita’s incidentally.
In 2015 after years of lobbying the mexican government decreed a fishing ban that is still in place.
In 2018 Defenders of Wildlife, Greenpeace and Teyeliz presented a proposal to the Environmental Ministry to increase the refuge area, prohibit fishing, restrict navigation and increase patrolling; the proposal was accepted and refuge area was increased by 750sq km.
CIRVA recommends a comprehensive programme including 24 hour monitoring of the habitat, net removal teams and prosecution of illegal fishers.
The Sea Shepard’s want to bring their second vessel to operation Milagro and to defend the vaquita’s habitat.
What can you do?
There is more and more coverage on this issue and you can help spread awareness.
Recently Leonardo di Caprio tweeted about the vaquita’s.
○ Watch the film: ‘Sea of the Shadows’.
○ Use your social media to raise awareness especially on international vaquita day.
○ Donate to a charitable conservation organisation such as Greenpeace, Sea Shepard or the Porpoise Conservation Society.
• READ THE PUBLICATIONS AND SOURCES I’VE PROVIDED BELOW AND LEARN MORE ABOUT VAQUITAS! 💟🐬🐋🐳