Can Mexico’s Vaquita Porpoise Survive?

Picture Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (U.S.)

The vaquita, scientific name Phocoena  sinus, is a type of porpoise which is endemic to Mexico.

The vaquita lives
in the northern part
of the Sea of Cortes
(pictured on the right), also called the
Gulf of California or
Vermilion Sea, a body
of water lying between
the Mexican mainland and the Baja California peninsula.

The term vaquita is Spanish for “little cow” and the vaquita is the smallest and rarest type of porpoise.  It has only been known to science since the 1950s.

The vaquita is now in imminent danger of extinction.  

Here are some vaquita population estimates from recent years demonstrating the drastic decrease:

1997 – 567 vaquitas
2007 – 150 vaquitas
2015 – 59 vaquitas
2016 – 30 vaquitas
2018 – fewer than 19
2022 – fewer than ten, maybe just 7 or 8
Why has there been such a precipitous decline?

The main killers of the vaquita are fishing nets.  But not fishing nets intended to trap the vaquita.

The fishing nets are those being used to trap the totoaba fish, also endemic to the Sea of Cortes and also endangered.

Since 1975 it’s been illegal to catch the totoaba but poachers have continued catching them
anyway. 

The totoaba swim bladder (pictured left)
is in high demand in China and elsewhere in Asia.

This in turn drives an illegal and profitable trade in the totoaba, called the “cocaine of the sea”.

Totoaba swim bladders can fetch thousands of dollars per kilogram.

Vaquitas get entangled in the nets intended for the totoaba.  As mammals, vaquitas need their oxygen. They can’t stay under water indefinitely and they die.

Even in ideal circumstances the vaquita has a slow reproductive cycle.  The time between births for a mother vaquita ranges from 1 to 2 years.

In 2023, there was some cause for hope.  A survey conducted by the Sea Shepherd organization observed the vaquita area and reported the existence of 10 to 13 vaquitas.  That total included at least one vaquita calf, a newborn.   A calf was spotted twice, so it was either the same calf twice or two calves.  

The Mexican Navy has installed concrete blocks with curved arms in the water.  The purpose is to catch discarded floating nets which can endanger the vaquita.

There is a Zero Tolerance Area in which illegal fishing had been reduced by 90% (as of April 2023).

However, in February of 2024 it was reported that the trafficking of totoaba swim bladders are on the increase online.

And most swim bladders aren’t even sold individually online but in bulk movements of several hundred.

Suffice it to say there’s a high demand for the product. Which still endangers the vaquita and the totoaba.

The Blue Whale survived near extinction and increased in population.  But it had a much larger range (most of the world’s oceans). Vaquitas only live in one area.

Source: Ocean Generation

Clearly, unless enough breeding stock survives, the vaquita is doomed.  But there is still hope.

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