The species was totally unknown to science until the late 1950’s, when it was first described from skulls and some sightings. Phocoena sinus – commonly called the vaquita, meaning little cow – is about 4.5 feet long, 120 pounds, and exists only in a small area in the northernmost part of the Upper Gulf of California in Mexico. Now, 55 years since its discovery, the smallest marine cetacean in the world is also the most endangered.
Very few people have ever seen a vaquita. Sightings are so rare that it wasn’t until 1983 that the vaquita was fully described, more than 25 years after scientists made its existence known to the world. The small porpoises spend most of their time underwater. When they surface, it is only for a few seconds, and they do it without jumping or creating any splash, so spotting them is difficult.
The IUCN classified the vaquita as endangered in 1990, and raised the status to critically endangered in 1996. The International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) estimated the total population of the species to be just 567 individuals in 1997. Ten years later, CIRVA estimated only 220 vaquitas remained, and by 2014 they estimated that fewer than 100 vaquitas were left. The decrease in population has been so fast that the vaquita may become extinct in just four more years.
What has caused this rapid decline of such a rare species? The story begins with another creature that lives in the same waters. The Upper Gulf of California is a rich habitat for blue shrimp, sharks, rays, mackerel and another endangered species of fish called totoaba.
Early in the 20th century, the totoaba was heavily exploited for its swimming bladder, which was exported to China. This led to its decline, its listing as an endangered species, and eventually, an indefinite ban on fishing for totoaba. Unfortunately, the damage had been done – not just to the totoaba, but to the vaquita as well. For decades, fishermen casting nets for totoaba had also been catching vaquitas. Once caught in the nets, vaquitas cannot surface to breathe, and they invariably drown. Since the species hadn’t been identified yet, the fishermen did not know what they were capturing; they may have mistaken vaquitas for young or very small dolphins. After the totoaba fishery was banned, fishermen turned to sharks, shrimp and mackerel, but the result was the same for the vaquita: It drowned in those nets as well. Today, the biggest threat to this species is still incidental capture in fishing nets.
Slow Progress for Conservation
Mexico took steps to try and save both species in 1993 by creating a biosphere reserve in the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta, which restricted fishing in core areas. But experts found that it was not enough. They recommended that any fisheries using nets be banned, and that a special refuge area be created to protect all of the vaquita’s habitat.
After a 10-year campaign by Defenders and a coalition of other NGOs, the Mexican government finally agreed to the refuge. But when it was established in 2005, the vaquita refuge area didn’t cover all of the known vaquita habitat, and it didn’t ban fishing within the refuge. We have continually requested a fishing ban to better protect vaquitas from being accidentally killed, but as yet, it has not happened.
In 2006, the Environment Ministry started a new plan to decrease bycatch by buying out fishermen’s permits to fish inside the biosphere reserve. We and several other NGOs warned the Mexican government that this wouldn’t work; they don’t enforce the permits well enough for this to be a solution. The result: the government has paid tens of millions of dollars to fishermen since then, but the vaquita is on the brink of extinction.
In the past few years, illegal fishing of the totoaba has surged to unprecedented heights. The price for a kilo of totoaba’s bladder has soared to $8,000-$20,000 in China, so that fishermen who are willing to break the law can earn in a few weeks what they usually earn in a year. Mexican authorities speculate that most fishermen in the Upper Gulf of California are now involved in this illegal fishery. This is certainly alarming for the totoaba, but for the vaquita, it could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.
In the coming weeks, we expect the Mexican government will be announcing new measures to try and save the vaquita. We have requested that the government decree a total fishing ban and increase the personnel of the Environmental Enforcement Agency in the area to enforce it, and curtail any illegal fishing. Even if these measures are put in place, it’s no guarantee. With such a small population left of vaquitas, it will be touch and go, but we are hopeful that if the Mexican government truly commits to preserving this unique animal, the vaquita can still be saved.