All About the Vaquita, the Most Endangered Marine Mammal

By: Sascha Bos  | 
A vaquita, which looks like a tiny dolphin, poking its head out of water
The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is a critically endangered porpoise species found in the Gulf of California, Mexico. Tharuka Wanniarachchi / Shutterstock

The vaquita is the most endangered marine mammal in the world. Abundance estimates place the total vaquita population at about 10 individuals.

Read on to learn more about this unique species and ongoing efforts to save the vaquita.

Advertisement

About Vaquitas

The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is a critically endangered marine mammal in the porpoise family. The name "vaquita" means "little cow" in Spanish, a reference to the marine mammal's markings.

Vaquitas are dark gray with black markings around their eyes and lips. They have round heads and a large dorsal fin compared to other porpoises.

Advertisement

Vaquitas are the smallest cetaceans — the group that includes dolphins, porpoises and whales — at 4 to 5 feet (1.2 to 1.5 meters) long and 65 – 120 pounds (29.5 to 54.4 kg).

Vaquitas feed on shrimp, small fish, squid and octopuses.

Advertisement

Vaquita Habitat

The vaquita's range is the smallest of any marine animal. Vaquitas only live in a 1,519-square-mile (141-square-kilometer) area in the upper Gulf of California, beginning at the delta of the Colorado River Biosphere Reserve.

They prefer the shallow water near the coast, which makes it harder to protect vaquitas from human activity.

Advertisement

The Mexican government established a vaquita refuge in the northern Gulf of California in 2005. All commercial fishing is banned in this area, which represents only a small portion of the vaquita's already limited range.

Vaquita Conservation Status

The vaquita is a critically endangered species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

The vaquita population has experienced significant decline since the first vaquita abundance survey in 1997, which identified 567 vaquita. By 2015, there were only 59. In 2022, the estimated population was 10.

Advertisement

In August 2023, the International Whaling Commission issued its first-ever Extinction Alert, warning that "the extinction of the vaquita is inevitable unless 100 percent of gillnets are substituted immediately with alternative fishing gears that protect the vaquita and the livelihoods of fishers. If this doesn’t happen now, it will be too late."

Continued Illegal Fishing Threatens the Vaquita Population

Vaquitas face a single threat: gillnet fishing. Illegal gillnet fishing in the vaquita's range exploded around 2011 due to increased demand for totoaba swim bladders, used in Traditional Chinese medicine and cosmetics.

Although the endangered totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) is protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, illegal trade has continued, and some conservationists believe the Mexican government has not done enough to secure natural protected areas.

Vaquita Conservation Efforts

In 2020, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries, also known as the National Marine Fisheries Service, banned all seafood caught in the vaquita's natural habitat.

“This embargo is a crucial step toward ending the Mexican government’s utter indifference to the vaquita’s extinction,” Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a press release from the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Advertisement

Advertisement

Loading...