Other names: Gulf of California porpoise, Cochito
Size: Adult 1,50 m, newborn 0,70 m
Weight: 30 – 55 kg
Distribution: Extreme northern end of the Gulf of California, Mexico
Diet: Fish, squid, crustaceans
Habitat: Warmer turbid waters, shallow inshore (< 40 m.)
Status: Critically Endangered (IUCN, 2008)
The Vaquita: small species, big problems!
The Vaquita is the smallest and most endangered cetacean in the world. With an estimation of only 250 animals left, this species could be the next to go extinct. The Vaquita is one of the six porpoise species, and lives in warmer waters. This species lives in a area less than 40 square miles, making it’s range the smallest of any cetacean living on the Earth. They survive in an area between San Felipe, Rocas Consag and the tidal mouth of the Colorado River in the Gulf of California (Mexico). Although the Gulf of California represents only 0.008% of the world’s seas, it harbors 34 species of marine mammals, like blue and fin whales as well as marine turtles. The Vaquita is an endemic species to this region, making it’s survival in this particular area incredibly important.
The northern Gulf of California owns a great abundance of fishery resources, and with 100.000 people living around its margins, some of these fishery resources are now depleting due to overfishing. This forms the biggest threat to the vaquita, especially the use of gillnets. The porpoises get caught as bycatch in these gillnets, that are set out to catch shrimps. Estimations are made that at least 39 vaquitas per year die in these nets, and maybe even as many as 84. Fishing gear is a big problem for cetaceans all over the world. Estimated is that 300,000 cetaceans drown every year in fishing gear. That equals one cetacean dying every two minutes! Of course, setting out nets is a result of the demand people put on eating seafood. Local fishers do not want to catch vaquita, the bycatch is a result of local people trying to make a living and feeding their families.
The challenge is now to protect the remaining group of vaquitas. The government of Mexico created an international committee, and a biosphere reserve and vaquita refuge in 2005 which covers nearly 2,000 square kilometers. They also put a ban on the use of gillnets, compensating the local fishermen with alternative livelihood options.
Researchers are now monitoring the vaquitas to stay updated on their status of survival. Acoustic research methods have been identified as the best monitoring strategy because vaquitas are difficult to detect visually. However, new methods need to be developed since the current methods used for these kinds of observations aren’t developed for a species that is as rare as the vaquita. These new methods are being tested with pilot studies at the moment, and seem to work! Hopefully this means savior for this extremely rare porpoise species.