The vaquita, named the world’s smallest porpoise and the world’s rarest sea mammal, was undiscovered until 1958 and may be extinct by 2022. The World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) has called upon the Mexican government to put huge conservation efforts into practice after the population of the vaquita has dropped by 40% since 2015. It could be a repeat of history, like the Dodo bird, the small porpoise may only be seen by future generations in the pages of a book.
Habitat and phenotype
The vaquita porpoise (Phocoena sinus) is also known as the Gulf of California harbour porpoise and is the rarest and the smallest of the cetaceans (the name given to the collective group of whales, dolphins and porpoises). Characterised by a grey body, dark patches around the eyes and a light underbelly, weighing around 120 Ibs and reaching minute lengths of up to 5 feet for females, and 4.6 feet by males.
The vaquita is often found in shallow waters, they are native only to the northern end of the Gulf of California. They are a unique member of the cetaceans because of their ability to thrive in warm waters, whereas others are restricted to temperatures under 20 degrees Celsius. The changes in the temperature in the Gulf of California are important to the vaquita porpoise as the fluctuations between 14 to 36 degrees Celsius control the seasonal reproduction of the species. The small area in which the vaquita is found is incredibly important for understanding the troubles the vaquita faces, as changes to their habitat can impact on the entire vaquita population.
Vaquita decline affects the marine ecosystem
The vaquita porpoises diet is restricted to teleost fish and squid that are found near the water’s surface. It is suggested that the decline of the vaquita would have a huge impact on the Gulf of California’s aquatic ecosystem as the vaquita is on the top of the food chain in that area, feasting on dozens of species of fish. The decline of the vaquita would increase pressure on smaller organisms prey to the species of the fish usually decimated by the vaquita, making it difficult for predatory species to locate adequate amounts of food.
Not helping the rate of endangerment of the porpoise is the average amount of offspring a female vaquita will produce. The vaquita will only give birth to one calf every two years on average, the females’ dependence of seasonal reproduction is becoming ever more unachievable because of global climate change affecting the Gulf of California’s waters.
Gill-net fishing causing critical endangerment
The vaquita porpoise is listed as critically endangered by the WWF with only 60 of them left in the wild. The estimated size of the vaquita porpoise population in the 1930s was 5000, making many ask the question: why has there been such a decline of the species?
The biggest threat to the vaquita are the gill-nets used to catch local totoaba fish that accidently catch the vaquita porpoise as by-catch, leaving the animal unable to swim to the water’s surface for air and subsequently killing them. The totoaba fish are collected by fisheries for their expensive bladders that are smuggled across the border to China where they are a delicacy in traditional Chinese medicine.
One of the reasons that the Mexican government let the rate of endangerment of the vaquita go this far is because local fisheries have relied economically on the fishing trade of this area.
Conservation efforts in Mexico
The Mexican government created the Upper Gulf of California Reserve in 1993 to try to protect the vaquita population, this was somewhat successful because the area was declared a natural biosphere reserve, meaning that many species within the reserve such as 161 species of fish and 35 species of mollusc are protected. However, the initiative has been unsuccessful in completely protecting the vaquita as it covers a vast area of land, home to thousands of different species. The reserve also still has the problem of catching illegal fishing in the waters.
In 2015, the Mexican government suspended gillnet fishing for two years and offered to invest $36 million each year to support affected fisheries. Penalties were given to those going against the new rules regarding fishing in the area and apparent commitment by the Mexican president was observed. Unfortunately, these efforts have not protected the species because the demand for totoaba bladder actually increased, the death toll for the totoaba grew and so did the endangerment of the vaquita. Even more recently, with the numbers of the vaquita porpoise rapidly declining, a permanent ban on gill-nets was introduced in July, 2016. Despite seizures of illegal gill-nets and the number of people imprisoned for failing to comply with the new fishing laws, the trafficking and consumption of the totoaba might well lead to the extinction of the vaquita.
WWF Vaquita research programme to aid conservation
The WWF is currently trying to aid Mexico’s vaquita porpoise conservation efforts by introducing an intensive research programme focusing on studying the lifestyle of the porpoise in order to find new innovative ways to protect the species. The WWF has commented that without the reduction or elimination of the risk of the vaquita being caught by fisheries by accident, it will be unlikely for the vaquita population to have a future.
The WWF suggests one way in which the general public in the UK can help support the protection of the vaquita is to only buy seafood that is MSC certified, which lowers the incidence of marine life being put at risk by unsustainable fishing. Another way to help the conservation efforts in Mexico, suggested by www.porpoise.org is to write directly to the Mexican president, Sr. Enrique Pena Nieto to commend him for his efforts and encourage more conservation to take place.
Not another extinction
The extinction of the vaquita porpoise would be the second cetacean to become extinct in our lifetime, after the devastating extinction of the Yangtze River Dolphin in China, 2006. Similarly to the factors leading to the decline in the vaquita population, the Yangtze River Dolphins’ population was rapidly depleted because of unsustainable fisheries bycatch, mixed with degradation of the dolphin’s habitat. Sadly for conservationists and animal enthusiasts alike, history may repeat itself if measures, such as harsher penalties for illegal fishing, are not put in place by the Mexican government.