Vaquitas are timid, highly elusive marine mammals located exclusively on Mexico’s Gulf of California. The genus Phocoena is Latin for “porpoise” and is comprised three extant species of porpoise (Phocoena dioptrica, spectacled porpoise; Phocoena phocoena, harbour porpoise; and Phocoena spinipinnis, Burmeister’s porpoise), along with the vaquita. Measuring in at just 1.5 metres, the vaquita is the smallest of all cetacean species and shares many ecological characteristics with the 80 odd whale, dolphin and porpoise species found within the cetacean group. Despite its relatively recent discovery in 1958, ongoing and often unregulated developments in the Gulf of California’s fishing industry have now pushed the vaquita to the brink of extinction. Whilst there has been growing international awareness on the existence of this unique species, a mere 10 individuals remain in the wild. Here are some of the most interesting facts about vaquitas and how you can help with the ongoing conservation efforts.

Family: Phocoenidae 

Genus: Phocoena

Species: Phocoena sinus 

IUCN Status: Critically Endangered

Population: Approximately 10 individuals

Image by: the United Nations Environment Program

Appearance

The most defining physical characteristics of the vaquita are the dark rings encircling its eyes, as well as the dark patches surrounding the mammal’s lips. These bovine qualities are believed to have awarded the animal its common name of ‘vaquita’, which is the Spanish word for ‘little cow’. The rest of the vaquita’s body is uniquely patterned with various shades of black, white and grey – a trait common amongst marine mammals for the purpose of individual and species recognition. They are distinguishable from porpoises by virtue of their smaller size, stockier build, larger flippers, smaller head, as well as a taller, curvier tail fin. Vaquitas also sport a triangular dorsal fin, taller and wider than that of porpoises, which purportedly allows for thermal regulation in warm waters.

Habitat

The non-migratory vaquita has the most limited geographical range of any cetacean species, inhabiting a mere 4000 square kilometres in the Northwestern area of the Gulf of California in Mexico. Remaining individuals are found primarily around the Rocas Consag archipelago, near the town of San Felipe in Baja California, as well as near the Colorado River Delta, a marine habitat of incredible species diversity.

Vaquitas inhabit relatively shallow waters, ordinarily found within 25 kilometres of the shoreline at depths of 10 to 30 metres. Their marine environment is turbid, nutrient-rich and dynamic, with high levels of available prey. The vaquita is also uniquely adapted to live in warm waters, tolerating temperature fluctuations from 14 to 36 degrees Celsius, whereas most porpoise species inhabit waters at a temperature of 20C or below.

Behaviour

Vaquitas are non-selective feeders, consuming a wide variety of benthic squids, crabs, fish and crustaceans. A post-mortem examination of a vaquita’s stomach contents revealed that the animal had consumed at least 17 different species of fish.

Similarly to all cetacean species, vaquitas do not have gills and must surface to breathe. However, due to their reserved nature, these creatures are never seen performing the surface acrobatics so characteristic of dolphins, whales and porpoises. Instead, the vaquita hardly disturbs the surface of the water, emerging with a slow, forward-rolling movement. Upon taking a breath, the vaquita will quickly and quietly dive back into the water. Unsurprisingly, vaquitas are also easily frightened by loud noises, such as boat propellors.

Vaquitas have been observed solitarily, in pairs, and in groups of seven to 10 individuals, with groups sometimes found loosely aggregated over an area of several kilometres squared. They are known to echolocate through a series of high-frequency clicks.

Ecosystem Services

Despite our limited knowledge on the ecological and behavioural traits of the vaquita, their importance to the marine ecosystem of the Gulf of California is irrefutable. The

vaquita is an essential part of the natural food chain within its habitat, existing as both a predator and as prey for top predators such as sharks and killer whales. These gentle creatures serve as a vital mechanism of population control for several species of fish, crustaceans, and cephalopods. The vaquita’s rapidly dwindling population thus threatens the delicate ecological balance of this interdependent food chain.

vaquitas factsFemale vaquita captured during the VaquitaCPR project in 2017. Photograph from VaquitaCPR

Threats

Soon after the vaquita’s discovery in 1958, scientists became aware of the species’ plight. Categorised as ‘Vulnerable’ under the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List in 1986, the vaquita’s classification was rapidly hoisted to ‘Endangered’ in 1990, and ultimately reached ‘Critically Endangered’ by 1996. The primary threat against these timid creatures is the fishing industry’s rampant and unregulated use of gill nets within known vaquita habitat. Instances of incidental bycatch have caused the vaquita to suffer a population decline of approximately 94% between 1997 and 2016.

Gill net fishing is an outdated, barbaric fishing technique that has been utilised in the Gulf of California for decades. Gill nets are walls of netting which are suspended in the water column. The size of the mesh is designed for the head of the fish to fit through, but not the body. As the fish attempts to remove its head from the net, its gills are caught in the mesh and the fish eventually drowns. Within the Gulf of California, this practice is utilised primarily to target shrimp and the totoaba; a critically endangered fish endemic to the region. From its introduction to the Mexican fish market in 1930, high demand for the totoaba resulted in 60 years of overfishing and exploitation. This culminated in the Mexican government listing the totoaba as endangered in 1975, followed by the United States government in 1979. What government officials failed to recognise at the time was the effects of unrestricted, imprudent gill net fishing on the totoaba’s cohabitant, the vaquita.

Vaquitas are extremely vulnerable to gill net fishing, as the six-metre-long nets hang just below the surface and span several kilometres. Given the limited geographical range of these timid creatures, combined with the fact that vaquitas must surface for air, chances of entanglement in these macabre traps are very high. Whilst all sizes of mesh pose a threat to the vaquita those designed for totoaba fishing are particularly fatal as both species are of a similar size. Scientists estimate that one in every five vaquita are caught and drowned by gill nets.

Totoaba fishing has been banned since 1975, and in 1977 the species was included in Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). However, rising demands from China for totoaba swim bladders have resulted in the establishment of an elaborate black market trade for the fish. In China, totoaba swim bladders are considered both a delicacy and a source of healing properties, earning fishermen approximately USD$8000 for each kilogram of totoaba swim bladder. Impoverished communities on the coast of Mexico therefore resort to gill net fishing as a source of income. In a statement given by the president of a fishing cooperatives federation in San Felipe, Ramón Franco Díaz said, “the government still hasn’t given us a solution or an effective way to support our families without going out to fish illegally”. In July of 2021, HKD$3.3 million worth of totoaba fish bladders originating from Mexico were seized in Hong Kong, demonstrating the ineffectiveness of local and International legislation, as well as the continued absence of regulatory measures.

Further complicating the situation is a decision made at the 74th meeting of the Standing Committee of CITES in March of 2022, whereby the committee voted to allow a Mexican aquaculture facility, Earth Ocean Farms, to commence the breeding and trade of captive totoabas. Despite numerous concerns about the decision’s potential effect on the demand of totoaba products, as well as on the effectiveness of regulatory procedures within Mexico, a majority vote of nine to five allowed the motion to pass. 

Conservation Efforts

Once scientists uncovered the extent of the vaquita’s population decline, the governments of Mexico and the US began implementing a number of inefficacious measures aimed at protecting the species. In 1972, the US awarded the vaquita protection under the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and in 1975 Mexico declared the vaquita to be an endangered animal. But it was not until 1992 that Mexico banned the use of large mesh gill nets specialised for catching totoaba.

In 1993, the Colorado River Biosphere Reserve was established to protect several species of endangered wildlife residing within the Gulf of California, including the vaquita and the totoaba. The reserve covers an area of approximately 10,000 square kilometres and was designed to promote and support sustainable fishing and recreational activities. Nevertheless, due to the high profitability of fishing within the reserve, vessels openly utilising gill nets were welcomed into the area by the Mexican Navy, who were supposedly tasked with enforcing the ban on large gill nets.

In 2005, a “Vaquita Refuge” was created within an area of relatively high vaquita population density, which prohibited all commercial fishing within the allocated space. This was accompanied by the Species Conservation Action Plan for Vaquita (PACE-Vaqita) in 2008, which purportedly constituted a comprehensive conservation strategy for the species. Nevertheless, due to the disarray of management systems within Mexico’s fishing industry, the lack of support from local fishing communities, and the perpetual inadequacy of monitoring and enforcement initiatives, the refuge and accompanying conservation plan failed to safeguard the vaquita’s continued existence. In November of 2021, scientists conducting vaquita population counts in the Gulf reported seeing 117 fishing boats within the vaquita refuge in the span of a single day. Exacerbating the situation is the geographical layout of the Gulf, with tall cliffs and barren islands further hindering the government’s already apathetic surveillance strategies.

When questioned about the lack of enforcement within the Gulf, the chief of public affairs for the Mexican Navy, Rear Admiral José H. Orozco Tocaven, stated that navy officials were required to adapt regulations to account for the needs of fishing communities in the area, and thus permitted up to 65 fishing boats to enter the vaquita refuge at any one time. This leniency, the admiral claimed, resulted from the numerous riots mounted by disgruntled fishermen, who derive their income from the industry. One such incident involved two conservation groups, the Whale Museum and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, who were granted permission by the Mexican Government to patrol the area and intercept poachers. As violence between local fishermen and conservation organisations escalated, conservationists were forced to switch to simply reporting gill net sightings rather than actively intervening.

Following the failure of the government’s vaquita refuge strategy, and fuelled by recommendations from the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), the Mexican government implemented a complete and permanent ban on gill net fishing within the Gulf of California in 2016, as well as on night fishing. Yet, as demonstrated by similarly obvious and ineffectual solutions previously implemented by the government, hostility from local fishermen coupled with the lack of enforcement from officials, rendered these legislative measures useless. Due to the harsh climatic conditions of the Mexican coast, fishing is often the primary economic activity of numerous communities residing along the Gulf. Prior to the overexploitation of the totoaba, gill nets were utilised in the area for catching blue shrimp and other legal species of fish. However, as the plight of the totoaba and the vaquita began garnering attention from conservationists, these species were increasingly viewed as a nuisance by local fishermen as a consequence of the fishing restrictions that their vulnerability induced. Prior to 2018, the Mexican Government issued fishermen on the Gulf stipends in an attempt to reduce fishing activities. Yet, the programme effectively ceased when President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office in December of 2018.

In 2016, WWF Mexico partnered with Mexico’s National Institute of Fisheries (INAPESCA) to establish an international committee dedicated to the development and implementation of vaquita-safe fishing practices and technology. The successful field-test of a light trawler, designed to exclusively catch shrimp, initially sparked optimism as a suitable vaquita-friendly replacement for gill nets. However, the replacement has not been welcomed within fishing communities, as the practice yields less shrimp. The absence of a market for sustainable seafood in Mexico further hinders the promotion of novel fishing practices that limit bycatch, as ethically-sourced seafood is not valued as highly in Mexico when compared to European and Northern American markets. 

In 2017, a drastic step was taken in vaquita conservation with the multimillion dollar VaquitaCPR project. In view of the government’s inability to protect dwindling vaquita populations in the wild, an international team of conservationists, veterinarians, and scientists devised a plan to place half of all wild vaquitas into secure sea pens until stronger conservation measures could be implemented. Two females were initially captured, yet both began exhibiting signs of distress that ultimately resulted in the death of one.

Although conservation through captivity may present itself as the most effective or convenient avenue, wildlife biologist Matthew Podlosky, who participated in the VaquitaCPR project, highlighted a key issue with the approach. Regardless of how feasible or sustainable species captivity is, the primary aim of releasing vaquitas back into their native habitat is implausible without rigorous government reform. Poverty-stricken fishing communities, the profitability of the black market trade, continued demand for totoaba products, and the lack of legislative enforcement greatly hinder conservation efforts, meaning that “even if that vaquita hadn’t died and the capture effort had been successful, the root of the problem would still remain”.

In July of 2021, conservation efforts took a giant leap backwards as the Mexican government renounced the fishing-free vaquita refuge and introduced a sliding scale of enforcement depending on the number of fishing vessels present in the area. The Agricultural and Fisheries Department stated that a count of 20 boats would trigger the deployment of 60% of enforcement personnel, and that a count of 20 to 50 fishing boats would warrant the use of 80% of enforcement resources. Yet, this contradicts previously mentioned statements given by navy officials, who admitted to allowing a maximum of 65 boats to enter the vaquita refuge on a daily basis in an attempt to avoid conflicts with fishermen. In a comment issued by the National Resources Defence Council, senior attorney Zak Smith stated that “Mexico has implicitly telegraphed its intent to allow the vaquita to go extinct by continually embracing inadequate half-measures which have never been effectively implemented or enforced”. 

NGO Spotlight: Viva Vaquita

It is thus clear that the various national and international legislative measures enacted over the past few decades have been entirely inadequate in attempting to save native vaquita populations. Of greater importance are conservation efforts carried out by NGOs and local organisations, who integrate themselves with the communities most affected by the vaquita’s plight in an attempt to find an effective solution. One such organisation is Viva Vaquita, who organises yearly education campaigns, festivals, and conferences to raise public awareness on the vaquita’s potential extinction. They have also implemented education programmes in schools across central California in an attempt to foster concern towards the environment amongst today’s youth. By conducting research expeditions and by sharing accurate resources on the ecological background of vaquitas, as well as on the threats they face, Viva Vaquita contributes greatly to creating a well-informed public who are able to petition governments and fishing industries to end the use of gill net fishing and the trade of unsustainable seafood. With the involvement of local fishing communities in the planning and execution of conservation strategies, perhaps a compromise can be reached in which the interests of both the vaquita and the fishermen of the Gulf can be safeguarded. 

vaquitas factsTwo vaquitas sighted in the Gulf of California. Photograph by Viva Vaquita

What You Can Do to Help? 

You might also like: Endangered Species Spotlight: Pangolins