Vaquita, which in Spanish means “little cow,” is a rare porpoise and the smallest and most endangered species of the cetacean order. Also called the Gulf of California Harbor porpoise (Phocoena sinus), it was discovered only in 1958, but by 2014 the estimated number of individuals dropped below 100, putting it in imminent danger of extinction. That number was revised to about 60 in May 2016.
Vaquitas are often caught and drowned in gillnets used by illegal fishing operations in marine protected areas within Mexico’s Gulf of California. More than half of the population has been lost in the last three years. The vaquitas are threatened primarily by gillnet fishing for the totoaba fish, another endangered species in the Gulf of California that is hunted for its swim bladder, which is considered a delicacy in China.
On Friday, July 22, 2016, United States President Barack Obama and Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto committed to intensify bilateral cooperation to protect the critically endangered vaquita porpoise. Mexican authorities are banning night fishing and gill nets in an area inhabited by the endangered vaquita marina porpoise in the upper Gulf of California. The national fisheries commission said fishermen in the protected area of the gulf, known as the Sea of Cortez, will also have to leave and return from specially designated docks, to help enforce the measures. It said that gillnets, the use of which was already suspended in the area, are now prohibited permanently.
“The demand for illegal totoaba fish bladders is driving the vaquita’s demise. By strengthening bilateral cooperation, Mexico and the United States are pledging their commitment to save the world’s most endangered marine mammal,” said Dr. Frances Gulland, The Marine Mammal Center’s Senior Scientist and a member of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission. “Enforcing a permanent ban on gillnets, developing alternative fishing gear, and increasing awareness among potential sellers and buyers of totoaba bladders will give the vaquita the greatest chance of survival.”
In March 2016, Dr. Gulland performed necropsies on three dead vaquitas that were discovered in the northern Gulf of California, determining their death as “trauma, entanglement.”
Associated Press, Mexico bans night fishing, gillnets for vaquita porpoise, July 20, 2016
Marine Mammal Center, www.marinemammalcenter.org
World Wildlife Federation, http://www.worldwildlife.org/species/vaquita
Vaquita, World Wildlife Federation, http://wwf.panda.org/what_we_do/endangered_species/cetaceans/about/vaquita/