The vaquita – Spanish for “little cow” – is in serious trouble. With numbers dwindling, this small, endangered porpoise is on the verge of disappearing forever.
According to estimates released by the Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) earlier this May, only 60 vaquitas remain. Population estimates were based on intensive surveys supported by the Mexican government that took place between September and December 2015. Before this survey result, the most recent population count in 2014 revealed an estimated 97 vaquitas remained. That’s a pretty startling drop in just two years.
What exactly is a vaquita?
This small animal is unknown to many. The vaquita is the smallest porpoise, dolphin, or whale species in the entire world. They are no more than five feet long and have a small, black circular patch around their eyes. American biologists Ken Norris and William McFarladn first identified it using skulls found on a beach in 1958. Vaquitas are found solely in the Upper Gulf of California. This body of water, also referred to as the Sea of Cortez, is a 1,000-mile long strip of ocean nestled between the coast of Mexico and Baja California.
The Issue of the Dwindling Vaquita Population
So how did we go from 97 vaquitas to 60 vaquitas in just two years? One of the major culprits is fishing nets. About one in five vaquitas drown each year in fishing nets. A specific type of fishing net, known as a gillnet, is primarily responsible for the majority of the vaquita deaths. Gillnets are large, non-selective nets that are placed perpendicular to the sea floor. Vaquitas attempt to swim through the nearly invisible net and can tangle a flipper or fluke in the small holes of the net in the process. Despite the fact that vaquitas can hold their breath for a decent amount of time, the nets cause a stressful situation and panic sets in. This type of net is already responsible for depleting several species that aid in the health of the local economy, such as manta rays, totoaba, and other small fish. The President, Enrique Pena Nieto, declared a two-year ban on the use of gillnets in a desperate attempt to save the dwindling population of vaquitas.
The main objective in setting the gillnets is primarily to trap totoaba, amongst shrimp and other small fish. Totoaba are targeted for their swim bladder – a prized Asian ingredient in soups. Swim bladders are traded and smuggled across U.S. borders to serve China. Unfortunately, a booming totoaba industry correlates to a dwindling vaquita population – and a booming industry it is. In the last year, totoaba fishing actually dramatically increased.
The gillnet-ban is part of a $70 million plan designed to save the vaquita and includes increasing the use of vaquita-safe fishing gear, such as smaller nets and fish traps. This plan was set out to decrease the numbers of vaquitas caught in nets while allowing fisherman to still make a living.
Unfortunately, the plan the president set out to use more vaquita-safe fishing gear is not going…as planned (pun intended). Fisheries agencies that are responsible for managing the use of nets have not been holding up their end of the stick. Fishermen are not cooperating either, as they continue to fish for totoaba. They need to make a living This isn’t particularly uncommon, however. Environmental issues aren’t always on the forefront of fisheries agencies priorities.
With the pressure mounting from demand for prized totoaba swim bladders, saving the vaquita is looking like an uphill battle.
Losing the vaquita means losing much more…
It’s up to Mexico to step up and address this issue head on – and it’s their marine environment that will take the brunt of the force from the vaquita extinction. The attention that this porpoise has drawn in is indirectly benefitting other endangered Gulf species. This has made the vaquita a sort of guardian angel for the environmental health of the reef. With the loss of the vaquita goes a loss of some of the environmental support for marine life in the Gulf.
This issue could hurt more than just the ecosystem as well. Some of the small towns in the Gulf area depend almost primarily on the fishing and tourism industries to keep their economy alive. If the loss of the vaquita means a dwindling marine ecosystem, there will be more than just marine life suffering.