The vaquita porpoise is an interesting case of an animal being on the critically endangered list. They were recently discovered in the past one hundred years and may not last for another hundred. Many factors, including small population size, among other things, have driven this loveable sea mammal very close to seeing its last days as a species. How could we drive a species to the edge of extinction when we only recently discovered it?
The History of the Vaquita Porpoise
The vaquita porpoise was discovered in the year 1958. When it was found, they already noted that the species' population was relatively small. The small population is also accompanied by the habitat in which they live. The vaquita is only found in a small area of the Gulf of California.
Between 1997 and 2002, the porpoise population in the gulf was devastated by shrimp gillnets. These nets were troublesome as the vaquita is not very large, and once entangled, there was a meager chance of escape.
In 2013 nets became an even bigger issue, but instead of catching shrimp legally, it was the illegal casting of totoaba nets that the vaquita was getting stuck in. These nets are illegal but continue to be cast due to the high-profit one can make selling the totoaba swim bladder as an exotic delicacy.
Local fishermen in the area have voiced their respect for the vaquita, but the hunger for money and to produce a livelihood for the families takes the top shelf. Thus, they either pretend not to see or partake themselves.
The vaquita porpoise had it tough from the beginning, I would say.
About the Vaquita Porpoise
The vaquita is smaller than other porpoises at a length of four to five feet, weighing one hundred pounds. It travels in small pods and lives only in the Gulf of California.
The vaquita is also known as the little sea cow or harbor porpoise by locals. Its physiology is unique in the fact that it has an abnormally long dorsal fin and an extra digit in its flippers. The snout is also unusual, as it doesn’t protrude in a missile shape like others in its species; it melds into the forehead region.
Most porpoises stay in cold waters, but the vaquita lives in areas where the water gets extremely warm. They use their large dorsal fin and flippers to expel much of the trapped body heat from the water.
Their small stature and unique body type make them look cute and cuddly, which is not necessarily good when you are on the brink of extinction.
Why is This Happening?
Estimates say there are between 10-30 vaquitas left on the planet. How did we let their numbers get so low? Well, as in most cases, it all comes down to money.
The leading cause of a decline in the vaquita population is the illegal fishing of the totoaba fish. These fish are sold for their innards as food. They sell for an absurd amount of money and are eaten as a delicacy.
The way that most of the totoaba are caught is by nets. As we discovered before, vaquitas and nets don’t exactly get along. As with the shrimping nets of the 1997-2002 era, these animals are small, and it is extremely hard for them to escape.
To see this species come back and swell in numbers would be a true Cinderella story; it may seem all but impossible, but it could happen. Researchers with Smithsonian Magazine have stated that if all illegal totoaba fishing nets and porpoise poaching stop right now, the animal has a 6% chance of going extinct.
Alternatively, if things do not change, the survival rate of the porpoise drops by 80%. The survival of this species is literally in our hands.
What is Being Done to Save the Species?
Multiple organizations and individuals are going to extremes to try and save them from going extinct.
Vaquita CPR (Conservation, Protection, & Recovery) is a conglomerate of scientists and conservations that are taking strides to help protect the vaquita. They are both out in the field and in the lab, trying to develop ways to help these critically endangered animals.
This includes keeping them alive in human care until they are fit to return to nature, much like the panda bear.
In 2016, the President of the United States and the President of Mexico signed a collaboration to help preserve the animal. This recognition by state officials brought tons of awareness to the vaquita topic.
One of the most critical pieces of work being done is banning gillnet fishing in the Gulf of California, as nearly all of it is illegal anyways. Removing gillnets and banning them may be one of the only ways the vaquita survives another hundred years.
As you can see, the vaquita porpoise has had a tough run in life, and it doesn’t look like it will get easier anytime soon. If we can band together and rescue these beautiful creatures from illegal fishing, they may still stand a chance.