Vanishing Vaquitas and their Inventive Allies

By Iqra Ahmed

The world’s smallest and rarest marine mammal is right at the edge of extinction. It will probably vanish before our eyes in the next few years. As of 2017, there were less than 30 individuals left in the wild.

One of the saddest conservation stories of the past two decades is that of the vaquita dolphin, the smallest species of porpoise distantly related to the dolphin. If drastic action isn’t taken, there’s a possibility the vaquita will disappear by this summer.

Though the vaquita wasn’t discovered until 1958, unsustainable and illegal fishing practices have driven the vaquita populations to barely hanging on by a thread just over half a century later.

Nearly 1 out of every 5 vaquita often end up entangled and drowned in gillnets used by illegal fishing operations within marine protected areas in the Gulf of Mexico, the only place in the world where vaquitas are found. Gillnets are also used to catch shrimp and other fish.

Illegal fishing operations hold the bulk of the blame, however. There is a high demand for totoaba (a type of giant fish) swim bladders in China for perceived health benefits. Fishermen receive about $4,000 for each pound of swim bladder – equivalent to half a year’s income through legal fishing.

Little Porpoise, Big Allies

The five foot porpoise has some strong allies fighting for it. The Mexican government set up the Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita), a team of scientists and researchers working to recover vaquita populations.

Since 2004, the Mexican government has taken additional steps in order to protect the vaquita such as setting up a Vaquita Refuge in the core range of the porpoise in the northern Gulf of California.

Fisherman who used this area to make their living were set up with a monetary compensation plan. The Mexican president, Enrique Peña Nieto, set up an emergency two-year ban in 2015 on gillnets throughout the vaquita’s range.

The US Navy is working to train sea lions and dolphins, which can serve to either act as guard dogs or can track vaquitas, capture them and bring them to safe areas.

However, despite these efforts, the latest surveys indicate that the decline of vaquita dolphins is accelerating, which is troubling and indicates the vaquita could be gone by this year. Since 1997, populations have shown a 92% drop and this decline hasn’t shown signs of slowing.

Point of No Return?

It’s possible there is no way to bring the vaquita back. The porpoise’s populations are dangerously low and it’s possible there might be no hope left. However, drastic enough action might be just the little nudge populations need in order to keep hanging on.

This is a situation that requires a collaborative effort. The gillnet ban requires strict enforcement and further support from the Mexican government and international community.

If this doesn’t help to save the vaquita, it at least helps to save other endangered species from heading down the same path; the vaquita is only one of 128 marine mammals.

The tale of this dolphin is a testament to the consequences of unsustainable fishing practices and illegal trade. Even if we are not successful in recovering vaquita populations, the inventive and cross-sectional strategies are implementing could lead to a domino effect for other endangered marine species that need our help.

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