The Society for Marine Mammalogy states that there are 89 species of cetacean (whale, dolphin and porpoise). The smallest of these, a species of porpoise known as the vaquita (Phocoena sinus), is in the greatest danger of going extinct. Many of us on the East Coast are much more familiar with the plight of the endangered North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis). We certainly give the right whale a fair amount of deserved attention within the Whaling Museum. But, because the vaquita is a Pacific Ocean animal, with a very limited range, it does not get much attention along the Atlantic seaboard.
However, the vaquita’s situation is so dire, that it is quite likely that in the next two years, it will get nationally recognized when it is declared extinct. As of mid-May, according to the Director of the international watchdog group, Elephant Action League, the population estimate for the vaquita was 12 individuals (the EAL uses sonic buoys to track echolocation among individual animals). Other reports put the number at 30 animals. The population in 2008 was estimated to be 340. According to Mexico News Daily, on June 29, four vaquita have been found dead so far in 2018.
An adult vaquita (the name means ‘little cow’ in Spanish) is five feet (1.5m) in length and weighs 120 pounds (54kg), with a bit of variation between males and females. They have an estimated life span of 20-25 years. They have dark rings around their eyes and dark markings around their mouths that look similar to lipstick.
The vaquita was discovered and officially recognized as a distinct species in 1958. As with most endangered animals, its tenuous situation is a function of a specialization or limitation in its habits and habitat, and its proximity to humans. In this case, the vaquita has the most limited range of any cetacean. It lives only in the upper Gulf of California, an area approximately the same size as the state of Rhode Island.
Unfortunately, a similarly sized fish, the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) also lives in the Gulf of California. This fish is the target of fishermen who use gillnets to catch the fish, remove their swim bladders, dry them, and then sell the bladders to buyers and smugglers in China and Hong Kong who are willing to pay $4000 per pound. There are many in these countries who think, mistakenly, that the swim bladders have medicinal properties. The dried bladders are a main ingredient in a soup known as “fish maw”. The totoaba is listed by NOAA as an endangered species.
The vaquita get entangled in gillnets targeting totoaba and drown. This fishery was closed down in 1975, but illegal totoaba fishing continues to catch and kill vaquita. Despite the fact that the Mexican government created a vaquita biosphere reserve in 1993, and placed a ban on all gillnets in 2015 in the vaquita’s habitat, the population continues to decline. Many of the area residents rely on fishing for income, the attraction of a big payday from totoaba swim bladders is a strong one, and enforcement is spotty.
Several citizen initiatives, including Pied for a Porpoise (yours truly was one of those who took a pie in the face), fundraisers and curriculum have been created to spread the word among visitors to aquaria and zoos, and to the general public, especially on the U.S. and Mexican West Coast. But, until the enforcement of all fishing bans is consistent, effective and unrelenting, this species, like the baiji (Lipotes vexillifer) in 2006, will go extinct in our lifetime.
One of those citizen initiatives is taking place this weekend, International Save the Vaquita Day.
Where to learn more:
I extend my thanks to David Bader, Director of Education at the Aquarium of the Pacific (AOP), for providing access to a Dropbox full of information: the AOP for their energy and persistence in educating the public about the vaquita, and the Texas State Aquarium for starting #pied4aporpoise.