Banding Together to Fight Extinction of the Vaquita Porpoise

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Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Banding Together to Fight Extinction of the Vaquita Porpoise

By: Chloe-Anne Swink

The country of Mexico had six months to put new measures in place. Measures aimed at saving the vaquita porpoise from extinction. To report on their efficacy. That was in October 2019. As of April 2020, 6 months later, the Vaquita’s fate remains dim.

A Unique Marine Mammal on the Verge of Extinction

The vaquita porpoise is unlike any other animal on this planet. Vaquitas are the smallest of any cetacean species (whales, dolphins, and porpoises). They’re also the only species of porpoise found in warmer coastal waters. 

Vaquitas are timid and elusive. They are so rare that some have even believed the vaquita porpoise to be a myth.

Vaquitas are recognizable by their distinctive features. They have dark grey rings around their eyes and abnormally large dorsal fins. Scientists believe these large fins help regulate their body temperature. This adaptation is necessary because of the warm waters in the Sea of Cortez. Located in the northern Gulf of California, the Sea of Cortez is the only known habitat of the vaquita.

A Unique Marine Mammal on the Verge of Extinction

The vaquita porpoise is unlike any other animal on this planet. Vaquitas are the smallest of any cetacean species (whales, dolphins, and porpoises). They’re also the only species of porpoise found in warmer coastal waters. 

Vaquitas are timid and elusive. They are so rare that some have even believed the vaquita porpoise to be a myth.

Vaquitas are recognizable by their distinctive features. They have dark grey rings around their eyes and abnormally large dorsal fins. Scientists believe these large fins help regulate their body temperature. This adaptation is necessary because of the warm waters in the Sea of Cortez. Located in the northern Gulf of California, the Sea of Cortez is the only known habitat of the vaquita.

History of the Vaquita Porpoise

Discovered in 1958 and on the verge of extinction just over half a century later. The vaquita has had a short history since its scientific discovery less than 65 years ago.

In 1997 the estimated size of the vaquita population was around 600. Today, that population estimate stands between 6 and 19 vaquitas. Between 2011 and 2016 alone, the vaquita population declined by 90%.

Did you choke on your coffee when you read that? These statistics will make you feel sick in your stomach. Unfortunately, it’s true. The vaquita will disappear in our lifetimes if nothing is done. You and I need to act quickly.

The Human-Imposed Threat Pushing Vaquitas Towards Extinction

Scientists speculate that climate change influences the decline of the vaquita population. While there may be some truth to this theory, the major threat to the vaquita comes at the hands of us humans.

Gillnet fishing and poaching is largely to blame for the loss of vaquita lives. Both legal and illegal fishing in the Sea of Cortez cause problems. The vaquitas unfortunately also live in close proximity to the totoaba fish. Totoaba are widely poached for medicinal reasons.

Gillnets: An Immediate Threat to the Vaquita’s Survival

You’ve likely heard of the danger gillnets pose to various marine mammals. Whales, dolphins, manatees, and the vaquita all face a threat from these large fishing nets. 

Gillnets see use in the Gulf of California for both legal and illegal fishing. Many times these gillnets are a part of legal shrimp fishing, which is a large commodity in the area.

Gillnets function underwater or near the surface. They stay for long periods of time. A death sentence for many marine mammals.

Vaquitas become entangled in gillnets left in their habitats and drown within minutes.

Mexico Faces Pressure to Regulate Gillnet Fishing in the Vaquita Refuge

The pressure is on for Mexico to eradicate gillnet fishing in areas where vaquita live. Over the years, Mexico has created many regulations. Ones about fishing in the vaquita’s habitat. Due to a lack of enforcement though, none of these regulations have made a significant impact. They haven’t helped conserve the species.

●     In 2015 Mexico placed a 2-year ban on all gillnet fishing in the vaquita habitat.
●     In 2017 Mexico permanently banned all gillnet fishing in the area.
●     Landing and launch sites in the sea of Cortez are regulated and watched.
●     Search and seizures occur to help stop the transport of illegal fishing gear in the area.

Sadly, these steps have been insufficient in conserving the vaquita population. Thus, outside organizations and the United States have stepped in.

A U.S. Ban on Mexican Seafood for the Sake of the Vaquita Porpoise

Drastic measures were taken as Mexico reached its six-month check-in. There was little progress to report.

On March 4, 2020 the U.S National Marine Fisheries Service made an important statement. They announced a ban on the import of Mexican seafood from the Gulf of California. An embargo was added on shrimp and most other seafood from the vaquita’s refuge.

Although Mexico enacted the gillnet ban in 2017, enforcement was weak. In 2019 Sea Shepherd found close to 70 boats gillnet fishing in the Sea of Cortez in one day.

The hope is that this embargo puts financial pressure on the Mexican government. Saving the vaquitas requires their diligent enforcement of the gillnet ban.

Vaquita Porpoises Face an International Threat

As if managing (somewhat) legal fishing for the food supply wasn’t enough of a task. Vaquita conservation efforts face the threat of poaching as well. Many gillnets placed in the vaquita refuge belong to international poachers. 

Vaquitas faces the danger of becoming collateral damage in the race to make money. As poachers use gillnets to catch totoaba. A large fish that inhabits the same waters as the vaquita.

Although totoaba fishing was made illegal in 1975, it continues rampantly today. This is because the totoaba’s swim bladder has value in traditional Chinese medicine. The swim bladder is an organ the totoaba uses for buoyancy. It’s harvested, dried, and cooked into a medicinal soup.

Today, the toatoba’s dried swim bladder is often called the “Cocaine of the Sea”. This is due to its price on the Chinese black market of up to $46,000 per kg.

Poaching the totoaba has become an international affair. It involves organized crime groups and cartels. This makes the situation difficult and dangerous to manage.

Who’s on the Frontlines of the Fight Against Poaching in the Sea of Cortez?

The organization Sea Shepherd has been front and center in patrolling the Sea of Cortez. Unfortunately, due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sea Shepherd had to halt its efforts.

The attempt to stop and prosecute poachers continues through the Mexican Navy. They also monitor the waters of the vaquita refuge.

Is it Too Late to Save the Vaquita From Extinction?

The numbers of the vaquita population continue to dwindle rapidly. Yet, conservationists still have hope.

Vaquitas are still spotted by scientists in their habitat. Those they spot appear healthy and thriving. This is cause for hope that the vaquita porpoise can recover from the brink of extinction.

How Can You Help Save the Vaquita Porpoise?

Another threat the vaquita has faced is obscurity. Many people have no idea the vaquita porpoise exists. Yet alone that they’re a critically endangered species. Few photographs have been taken of the vaquita in their natural habitat. This adds to their obscurity and mysticism.

Now is the time when the public needs to band together and stand up for the vaquita. Or we will lose this amazing marine mammal. 

You can help save the vaquita porpoise from extinction by speaking up. Talk to your friends, family, and coworkers. Help educate them on the plight of the world’s most endangered marine mammal.

Resources for Helping Save the Vaquita

If you’d like to take a bigger step in the fight against the vaquita porpoises extinction:
 
●     Sign a petition to tell the Mexican government the vaquita are important. That you want to see gillnets banned and poachers prosecuted.
●     Tell your elected officials that you care about the vaquita. The vaquita are being lost due to international poaching. This is a transcontinental affair. Wherever you are in the world, writing to your officials can help.
●     Symbolically adopt a vaquita porpoise today. Your donation will go towards research, education, and conservation surrounding the vaquita.

There is still hope for this special little marine mammal. The vaquita’s fate lies in the hands of those making the effort to share its story and support conservation.

Author Bio: Chloe-Anne Swink is a copywriter for the outdoor industry based in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Her drive to write about stewardship and our human relationship with the great outdoors stems from a deep love of rock climbing, freediving, and wakeboarding.