Jacques Cousteau, renowned sea explorer and scuba pioneer, spent decades exploring oceans and rivers all across the globe, but few could match the rich biodiversity of the Gulf of California — a narrow 700-mile-long (1,126-kilometer) sea that separates the Baja California peninsula from mainland Mexico. Cousteau affectionately called it "the world's aquarium" due to its remarkable array of marine species. But today, the underwater masterpiece is in critical danger of losing one of its unique denizens forever — and scientists can't emphasize enough just how truly dire the situation has become for one of the world's most adorable mammals.
The total number of vaquita (Phocoena sinus), a small porpoise endemic to the Gulf of California, has dwindled down to just 10 as of this writing, making the vaquita the world's most endangered marine mammal. While not all hope is lost for their survival, it hinges on immediate action from the Mexican government and local fishermen.
One of the six species of porpoises, the vaquita is also the world's smallest cetacean — the order of aquatic mammals that includes whales, porpoise and dolphins. They only grow up to 5 feet (1.5 meters) in length and weigh in at no more than 120 pounds (55 kilograms). Their faces are undeniably cute, with black rings around their eyes and lips that give the impression of a perpetual smile. Vaquitas have a rounded head, spade-shaped teeth and no beak. Despite their small stature, their triangular dorsal fin is larger than that of other porpoises, most likely to help them lower their body temperature in their warm water habitat.
If you've never heard of the vaquita, it's quite possibly due to the fact that they were only first identified and studied in the mid-20th century and are known to be quite shy. Even though they inhabit waters relatively close to shore and don't often swim deeper than 90 feet (28 meters), they only come to the surface every few minutes for 3 seconds at a time and tend to stay in small groups and away from motorized boats.
What's Killing the Vaquita?
Although many endangered species are dying off due to habitat loss, pollution or disease, Sarah Uhlemann, international program director and senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, shared in an email interview that the vaquita's demise stems from something much simpler that could be easily remedied. "The vaquita faces a single threat: entanglement in fishing gear set to catch shrimp and a giant fish called the totoaba," she says. "Historically, most of the shrimp caught in the vaquita's habitat was shipped to the U.S. market; the totoaba's swim bladder is consumed mostly in China, where it is believed to have medicinal properties. The vaquita's population has declined by 98 percent in the last 30 years, entirely because of entanglement in deadly fishing nets."
So why don't fishermen — and local governments — step up and stop the detrimental fishing in the area? It all comes down to money; a totoaba fish bladder, depending on its weight and other factors, is reported to bring in anywhere from $2,000 to more than $30,000, creating a lucrative — and thriving — black market.
Does the Vaquita Have a Chance of Survival?
Many endangered species struggle with the genetic effects of inbreeding once their population reaches such a small size, but there's some good news for the vaquita. Barbara Taylor, the lead vaquita researcher at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), says in an email interview, "Even though there are only around 10 remaining, we have evidence that they are not threatened by genetic factors. These survivors and their calves need protection from gillnets by guarding the small area where they remain and ensuring there is no gillnet fishing of any kind there."
Uhlemann agrees. "We're at the end of the line for the vaquita," she elaborates. "For decades, the Mexican public, scientists and conservationists have pleaded with the Mexican government to finally protect the vaquita. Mexico has the right laws in place – it is illegal to fish with deadly gillnets in the vaquita's habitat. But the Mexican government lacks the will to enforce its own law. Just last week, dozens of boats were documented fishing illegally within the vaquita's habitat. Mexico must crack down and end illegal fishing now, or we'll lose the vaquita forever."
There's an additional factor that makes enforcing the law the only viable option for the vaquita's survival: Captive breeding has proven too difficult and too risky with the vaquita. "The two vaquitas captured responded poorly to handling, with one released with signs of stress and the second that died," Taylor explains. "Capture myopathy [in which muscle damage results from extreme exertion, struggle or stress] is common in mammals but with only 10 individuals remaining, veterinarians didn't feel that (they) could afford to learn how to stop the cascade of stress resulting in death. Such learning needs to happen when there are hundreds or thousands of individuals, not tens."
Saving the Vaquita
The vaquita is a true treasure of the sea that, while in great danger, can be saved with swift action. It's common to feel powerless to affect change, but you can help save the vaquita through your support of the various organizations that are leading urgent conservation efforts, including the Center for Biological Diversity, Defenders of Wildlife and the World Wildlife Fund. The Porpoise Conservation Society even offers a way to feel that direct connection — you can symbolically adopt a vaquita and help give them a chance to swim the seas for years to come.