The Vaquita is a species of porpoise endemic and only existing in the northern part of the Gulf of California. An adult Vaquita weighs in at about 43kg and is between 1.2 mtrs and 1.5 mtrs long. The word Vaquita is Spanish for “little cow”.
The Vaquita has been listed as critically endangered since 1996. It has been estimated that there may have been as many as 5,000 Vaquitas in the region in the early 20th century. In 1997 the population was estimated at 600. This went down to below 100 in 2014. The population plummeted to about 60 in 2015 and 30 by 2016. An estimate based on a 2018 survey concluded that only a maximum of 22 and a minimum of 6 vaquita porpoises survived.
They live in murky and shallow lagoons along shorelines and rarely swim deeper than 30 meters. They tend to choose habitats with turbid waters, because they have high nutrient content that attracts the small fish, squid, and crustaceans on which they feed.
The Vaquitas die as by-catch in gillnets set for sharks, rays, mackerels, tatoaba and chano and shrimp trawl nets. The Vaquita has also suffered because of the demand in China for the swim bladder of the totoaba. The totoaba is also being overfished to extinction. By-catch are the unwanted fish and other marine creatures trapped by commercial fishing nets during fishing for a different species.
In 2005 government of Mexico made part of the gulf a Vaquita refuge. This notwithstanding the population kept falling, from more than 200 individuals in 2008 to fewer than 30 in 2016 as a result of the Mexican government’s failure to protect Vaquitas in the wild.
The price of totoaba swim bladder is so exorbitantly high, that organized crime took control of the fishing and the Vaquitas continued to die as by-catch.
Sea Shepherd has for the last five years maintained a maritime presence the Upper Gulf of California and has managed to sight a few Vaquitas in August 2019. The current estimates are that there are less than 19 Vaquitas left.
“To see vaquitas alive is a relief and shows that we must continue to protect the species,” said Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, the head of the Mexican Vaquita Research Program. Captain Locky Maclean, Sea Shepherd’s Director of Marine Operations, emphasized the importance of protecting the area where vaquitas remain by stating “the zero-tolerance area recommended by CIRVA must be completely net free, this is where Sea Shepherd has been focusing patrol efforts and will continue to do so.”
The Vaquitas are unlikely to survive the next 18 months and should be considered functionally extinct. Humanity’s greed and ignorance are set to claim yet another victim. Species must be comprehensively protected whilst their numbers make up a viable population. Heroic attempts to save the last few individuals are, unfortunately, a fool’s errand.