The Vaquita, also known as the Gulf of California harbour porpoise, lives in just one place in the world, the Gulf of California. This narrow body of water is nestled between Baja California and the north west coast of mainland Mexico.
It is both the smallest cetacean species on earth and the rarest sea mammal in existence.
Vaquita’s have a chunky body and a rounded head with no snout. Their pectoral (chest) and dorsal (back) fins are distinctively larger than that of other porpoises, and female vaquitas are generally larger than the males. They have a dark grey upper body which fades into a pale grey belly, and striking faces with thick dark colouring around their eyes and on their lips giving the appearance they are wearing makeup.
Vaquita’s are typically very shy animals and to this day little is known about their social and reproductive behaviours.
They typically east fish, prawns and crabs but are known to have a preference for squid.
Sadly, the vaquita is critically endangered with only a handful of individuals still alive. The fishing industry, pollution and habitat destruction from the dam built in the Colorado River threaten its survival.
Fishing nets have almost wiped out the species. In 1997 there were an estimated 600 individuals. Now there are fewer than 30 remaining. 90% of the population was lost between 2011 and 2016 alone. Although the Mexican government has now banned the static nets that were killing them, illegal fishing is still rife in the vaquitas’ home and discarded nets are a massive problem for these little porpoises.
Illegal fishing for another endangered species, the totoaba – a large fish sought after for its swim bladder, driven by demand from China where it is considered a delicacy with medicinal value- is the biggest threat to the Vaquita, with gillnets used frequently entangling and drowning them. Gillnets are particularly dangerous because they are indiscriminate. While usually designed for a single species, large amounts of unwanted by-catch are inevitable. More than 300,000 whales, porpoises and dolphins get entangled in fishing nets annually. Most of them die, and the few that get away do so with severe injuries.
The illegal totoaba fishing and trade is just the tip of the iceberg with criminal networks stripping Mexico’s waters of many valuable marine species, including sea cucumbers, abalone and sea horses.
Mexico’s enforcement efforts have been stepped up in recent years, but against the scale of the challenge they have been woefully inadequate. Unless Mexico enforces a full gill-net ban and addresses the corruption and criminal networks perpetuating the illegal totoaba trade, there is no hope for the vaquita.
Whilst ongoing conservation efforts to save the Vaquita’s are to be supported the remaining individuals are left fighting against a multi-millionaire dollar fishing industry that cares more for profit than biodiversity.
Before the last Vaquita breathes its final breath, the world should stand up, take note and take act to protect animals from indiscriminate fishing practices which cause such suffering, and so prevent the Vaquita and any other cetaceans going the same way due to human greed.
Sadly, I fear the imminent extinction of this beautiful animal will do very little to raise many heads across the globe at all as we continue our path of species and habitat destruction.
For more details on the plight of the Vaquita see
Animal Welfare Institute
Environmental Investigation Agency
Save the Vaquita
Click here to see Sea Shepherd video