Featured Image Credit: Frédérique Lucas
By Eva Gruber
With only 30 individual animals left living, the vaquita (Spanish for “little cow”) is on the verge of extinction. Found only in the shallow waters of the northern Gulf of California – known as the Sea of Cortez), it has suffered at the hands of gill net fishing. Fishermen laying sections of gill net, targeting an endangered fish called the totoaba, catch the vaquita as unintended bycatch. The vaquitas, tangled in the gill nets and unable to rise to the surface to breathe, drown.
This bycatch has gone on for decades, chipping away at the population of the vaquitas. The fact that they are slow to reproduce contributes to the decline. Just last year the species was down to 60 individuals – losing 50% of the population in one year is extreme, and a severe blow to the remaining genetic pool.
The extinction of this species would be a tragedy, as it is with any species. However, vaquitas are especially unique in many respects. They are the smallest cetacean in the world, and are more solitary than social. They are secretive and elusive, making them especially hard to study. Now that they are incredibly rare, we are left with many gaps in knowledge about their natural history. For example, little is known about their vocalizations – we only have recordings of their echolocation clicks.
There are many individual organizations vaquita that are working to try and save the porpoises through education and conservation efforts. The Mexican government has finally recognized the need for emergency action, and with participation from many of these conservation organizations, is ready to implement an action plan beginning with field operations starting this month.
One such organization associated with the National Marine Mammal Foundation is Vaquita Conservation, Protection, and Recovery (VaquitaCPR). Working closely with the Mexican government – who has already pledged millions of dollars toward vaquita conservation this year – VaquitaCPR hopes to remove some vaquitas from the threats in their home waters while a safe haven is established. VaquitaCPR recognizes that capturing and caring for this elusive species may prove impossible – but the situation has gotten desperate and unless an attempt is made then the vaquita may be gone forever.
Acting as a primary funding source for his program, VaquitaCPR recently received $50,000 from the Phoenix Zoo, who raised the money along with the Arizona Center for Nature Conservation. Zoo guests contributed $12,000, and ACNC Board members another $15,000.
The American Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ more than 100 members also contributed money to the cause – over $1 million dollars! That’s the largest funding source for vaquita conservation outside of the Mexican government. The next step is to locate and capture some of the remaining vaquitas so that conservation organizations can ensure their home waters are free of gill nets and illegal fishermen. This risky step is the last desperate measure in saving one of our planet’s most unique species.