World’s most endangered marine mammal approaching single figures

A recent report suggests there are only ten vaquita porpoises left in the wild. For decades they have been caught as bycatch in illegal gillnet fisheries targeting a different endangered species of fish. Now the outlook for the ‘little cows’ is very bleak unless drastic action is taken.

Vaquita or Gulf of California Harbor porpoise, Mexico
A vaquita porpoise alongside the gill nets responsible for its death

Hold out your hands in front of your face and count the number of digits you see. That is how many individuals are left in the most endangered marine mammal species on Earth. That is according to a new report looking at their chances of survival. The vaquita porpoise, the smallest and most endangered cetacean species, is only found in Mexico in just one localized area. But their home has become filled with illegal gillnet fisheries targeting a valuable species of endangered fish. Now these adorable creatures are getting caught in the middle and as a result there may now be as few as ten individuals left in the wild. Conservationists are calling for drastic action to be taken to preserve the species but in reality their days are numbered. This is a heart-breaking reminder that we are unsustainably abusing our oceans to the point where entire species are being wiped off the map.

The ‘little cow’

The vaquita are the world’s smallest and most endangered cetacean species and when translated from Spanish means ‘little cow’. They can only be found in the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Bay of California, in Mexico and nowhere else. They are porpoises which are a group of small toothed whales similar in many ways to dolphins but typically smaller with shorter beaks and distinctly different teeth. They feed on small benthic fish and occasionally something larger like an octopus or squid. The vaquita will only grow to around five feet in length and a weight of 75 pounds making them the smallest known cetaceans on the planet. The species has become popular among wildlife enthusiasts for their stubby faces and wide eyes that give them an almost child-like appearance. Thousands of the little porpoises used to fill the Sea of Cortez but a new report suggests there may now be as few as ten left.

smiling vaquita
The ‘little cow’ of the sea

Caught in the middle

The downfall of the vaquita has been the highly destructive fisheries in the area that often use the illegal method of gillnetting to catch a lucrative prize. The totoaba fish, also an endangered species, is the intended target for the fishermen who can make a tidy profit off selling them. Their swim bladders, responsible for controlling buoyancy, are sold on the black market in China for up to $46,000 per kilogram for their ‘medicinal’ properties. Caught totoaba often have their swim bladders removed before their dead bodies are thrown back into the water which often attracts the vaquita for a free meal. As a result thousands of the porpoises have been accidentally killed after getting themselves trapped in the nets and drowning. A report this month from the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) has predicted there are as few as ten left in the wild as a result and definitely no more than two dozen. They blame the illegal gillnets as the main and only real reason behind the species drastic decline.

gill net fishing
A fisherman reels in the totoaba gill nets

As recently as last week what is believed to be a dead vaquita was found adrift near a gillnet fishery by a Sea Sheppard vessel. It was hard to tell if it was indeed a vaquita because it was significantly decomposed, but many experts agree that it most likely was. The organisation has been working closely with the Mexican government since 2015 to help try and remove the illegal gillnets. However there are hundreds of the destructive nets scattered across the area and they are hard to locate. They have found several dead vaquitas over the last few years and recently only just managed to prevent a juvenile humpback whale from receiving the same fate. “If there were any reservations about totoaba gillnets being a great danger for vaquitas and other cetaceans, despite ample proof in the past, this event should definitely leave no room for doubt” said Sea Shepherd Director of Marine Operations Locky Maclean.

Slim chances

The CIRVA report does not give conservationists much hope for the survival of the species in the wild over the next few months and years. Conservation groups, such as Sea Sheppards, have called for Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to take immediate action to remove gillnets and punish those responsible. However it is likely that the damage has already been done and that the first major marine mammal extinction in North America for decades will take place under his watch. All that can be done now is to attempt to save the species from complete extinction by placing them in captivity. However this will not prevent them from disappearing from the Sea of Cortez in the near future. A last ditch attempt to test for the feasibility of protecting the species in captivity is currently underway. However in 2017 a similar attempt was made which resulted in the death of one vaquita and the forced release of another to prevent it from following suit. It is also suspected the chance of successfully breeding in captivity are slim. For many their extinction is just a matter of time.

A potent reminder

The devastating story of the vaquita is a very necessary and effective reminder that we must treat our oceans more sustainably and act sooner to protect threatened species. Alarm bells for the extinction of the porpoises have been ringing in Mexico for over a decade. Former president Enrique Peña Nieto outlawed the use of the nets in 2015 but bizarrely still made it perfectly legal to own a net making enforcement of the law almost impossible. As a result Mexico does have to take some of the blame for the eminent extinction of the vaquitas. However the valuable black market trade for totoaba in China is also at fault. After all these fisherman are not actively trying to kill the vaquita but are just trying to make as much money as possible to provide for their families.

vaquita in net
How long will it take for those left to meet the same fate?

Unfortunately the vaquita are very unlikely to be the last marine species to be pushed to extinction as a result of unsustainable practises and changing oceans. Cases like this will become far more common unless global scale changes are made to how we treat our planet. Hopefully the loss of this keystone species will help to change attitudes towards such practises in the future. But I somehow doubt that it will.

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