National Geographic News
Photo of a dead vaquita in Mexico.

Only 97 vaquita porpoises remain in the wild. Their steep decline is blamed largely on illegal gill-net fishing in the Gulf of California.

Photograph by Flip Nicklin, Minden Pictures/Corbis

Virginia Morell

for National Geographic

Published August 13, 2014

The vaquita, a small porpoise found only in the Gulf of California, is rapidly going extinct, an international team of scientists reported earlier this month.

The researchers say that the marine mammals—whose name means "little cow" in Spanish—are accidentally drowning in the gill nets local fishers deploy for fish and shrimp. A mere 97 vaquitas remain.

Vaquitas are shy creatures, and rarely seen, except when they're pulled to the surface—dead—in nets. They've been known to science only since 1958, when three skulls were found on a beach. At the time, it was thought that they numbered in the low thousands. Scientists and fishers alike say the animals, with their pretty facial markings ("they look like they're wearing lipstick and mascara," one scientist said) and sleek bodies, are endearing.

There's danger now that the porpoises will become the second cetacean (the first was the baiji, or Chinese river dolphin) to succumb to human pressures, most likely disappearing forever by 2018.

"It's a complete disappointment for everybody, because we've all been working hard to turn this around, and the [Mexican] government has addressed this from the highest level possible," said Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, a cetacean conservation specialist at Mexico's Commission of Natural Protected Areas and a member of the team.

Indeed, the Mexican government established a presidential commission on vaquita conservation in 2012, when scientists estimated the porpoise's population at 200.

Map of Gulf of California showing the range of the vaquita porpoise, along with the vaquita reserve, nearby biosphere reserve, and proposed gill-net exclusion zone.
MAGGIE SMITH, NG STAFF. SOURCES: International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita; IUCN; UNEP-WCMC

Failing Measures

To stem the vaquitas' decline, in 2005 Mexico created a refuge for them, banned all commercial fishing in the refuge's waters, beefed up enforcement, and invested more than $30 million (U.S.) to compensate fishers and encourage them to switch to other fishing methods.

It also established the international scientific team to monitor the porpoise's population, reproductive rates, and habitat. Its members hail from such august conservation bodies as the International Union for Conservation of Nature, the International Whaling Commission, the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, and Norway's Institute of Marine Research.

All were optimistic then. "We thought we were going to see the vaquitas' numbers increasing by 4 percent a year," said Barbara Taylor, a marine biologist with the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in San Diego, California, and a member of the team. "Instead, they've had a catastrophic decline of 18.5 percent per year."

Chinese Demand—But Not for Vaquitas

That decline, Rojas-Bracho said, is "all due to illegal fishing that is out of control."

In the past three years, illegal gillnetting for the totoaba, a critically endangered fish that can grow to more than six feet long (1.8 meters) and 300 pounds (136 kilograms), has surged. Unfortunately, the porpoise and the similarly sized totoaba live in the same parts of the gulf.

The totoaba's swim bladder, highly prized as a traditional health food and medicine in China, can fetch thousands of dollars. Few fishers can resist the temptation.

"It's like trying to control traffic while someone's throwing money from the Empire State Building," said Rojas-Bracho, who learned of the extent of this illegal take from several fishers who are also on the presidential commission.

The team estimates that about 435 miles (700 kilometers) of legal nets are in the water every day during the fishing season, from mid-September to mid-June. "And that's not counting the illegal nets for the totoaba," Taylor says.

Last-Ditch Solution

Because of the vaquita's timid nature (a sighting at 300 feet [90 meters] is considered close), scientists can't make visual counts of the animals. They rely instead on an array of special acoustic devices, deployed every year before the fishing season begins (they too are easily tangled in the nets), to record the sounds of the animals as they forage in the murky waters they favor. From these sounds, the researchers are able to estimate the vaquitas' numbers.

Because the animal's population is so low, the team says there is only one solution: Ban all gillnetting in the gulf's upper regions, including the waters surrounding the vaquitas' refuge. The ban must be strictly applied, even to the legal shrimp and fin fish fishery, and enforced with more police patrols on sea and land.

"It's a hard choice," Taylor acknowledges. Such a ban will hurt all the fishers, including those who aren't engaged in the illegal fishery. But, she said, if Mexico doesn't do that, it "will lose the vaquita."

Rojas-Bracho said that Mexico, China, and the United States governments also need to work together to control—if not end—the trade in totoaba swim bladders. The dried bladders are often smuggled across the U.S. border before ending up in the Chinese marketplace.

There is a modicum of hope. Even at only 97 animals (25 of them believed to be females of reproductive age), the species can still be saved, Taylor believes. "Most marine mammals, including other cetaceans, that have been taken down through hunting have come back, so it's not too late. But if nothing is done, they can also go extinct rapidly, as happened with the baiji. They can be gone before you know it."

The commission will meet again at the end of August to discuss what to do next to save the vaquita.

Virginia Morell is the author of four acclaimed books, including Animal Wise: The Thoughts and Emotions of Our Fellow Creatures.

24 comments
MANUEL GALINDO
MANUEL GALINDO

Lost credibility all the researcher that say that endangered Vaquita is only for by catch in nets, when in reality the natural habitat (estuary) has been changed due de Colorado River damming in USA and Mexico. The true is that is an international problem Mexico-USA and not only due the fishing activities in Mexico.

The Vaquita refuge has been over regulate since 1993 thinking that the problem is by for catch in nets, but the graphic with Vaquita population in this article shows not recovery in any time, it mean that all the public polices applied since 1993 has not working and that the real problem is due environmental changes

Kathi McGinnis Wickizer
Kathi McGinnis Wickizer

Bold, definitive statements such as, "Only 97 vaquita porpoises remain in the wild" give me pause because it's impossible to count a species of fish in the wild - which is unfortunate for you (the author) because you instantly lost credibility and my interest in reading the article. Good luck.

Stephen White
Stephen White

Wonder how the Chinese came to find a fish in Baja is a "traditional health food and medicine"?

Mojtaba Najafy
Mojtaba Najafy

The wild life has always had its own ways of correcting itself, of putting the things into order again. We humans on the top of this food chain have been blessed with a far advanced mind than others so that we could control our actions. Endangered animals like Vaquita, lions, cheetahs, many arctic animals, to name a few, show us that we have reached a critical stage; that we have been tampering beyond what we were supposed to. This is more of a philosophical and educational understanding that all the stakeholders need to have. Environmental knowledge and understanding of this kind should be brought to the front page of the lives of people all around the world.

MANUEL GALINDO
MANUEL GALINDO

El problema de la Vaquita Marina no es solamente por pesca incidental en redes, sino principalmente por cambios ambientales producidos por el represamiento del Rio Colorado en los EStados Unidos y Mexico. El Comite Internacional para Recuperar a La Vaquita ha utilizado equivocadamente la informacion cientifica existente, para decir que el problema de la vaquita no tiene relacion con los cambios ambientales producidos por el represamiento del rio y se lo atribuye solamente a la pesca incidental. Esa afirmacion esta equivocada. Les recomiendo leer el libro "PESQUERIAS GLOBALIZADAS", donde se sustenta cientificamente otra vision del problema. El libro lo pueden obtener en www.colson.edu.mx/libreriavirtual

Quien quiera mayor informacion se puede comunicar conmigo a salvador@uabc.edu.mx

Ranger Dan Parsons
Ranger Dan Parsons

Don't tell the NRA, they'll want to send somebody out to kill one.

Guy Holder
Guy Holder

The chart suggests a steep decline since '93. Is this the result of the push to make global warming the number one environmental concern? It's so infuriating how conservation has taken a back-seat to focus on global warming models and projections that so far haven't been very accurate.

Over the past 25 years people have learned precious little about the environment but are convinced that our co2 emissions are the primary driver of climate change even though there has been no global warming for almost 18 years.

Habitat destruction, habitat encroachment and hunting are the ONLY historical environmental concerns - today you could probably add invasive species to this list.

The flora and fauna can deal with the climate but we have to protect them from the very real threats above.

We should be embarrassed, the media should be embarrassed, climatologists should be embarrassed for the unwarranted alarm and the ignorance of a generation. We should truly be embarrased about losing creatures like this - no excuse - we know better but we chose to ignore real environmental issues. It's a travesty.


Jose Rene Mata
Jose Rene Mata

well, only 97 left guys! if you kill them all this year, there wont be any conservation issues next year. that would be an accomplishment worth noting for us who are on top of the food chain!

C. Dufour
C. Dufour

should we start looking into bringing some in captivity as a backup? when levels get this low and the conservation requirements are so costly, we need to seriously consider what species to save.

D Ram
D Ram

It's sad. "All were optimistic then. 'We thought we were going to see the vaquitas' numbers increasing by 4 percent a year,' said Barbara Taylor, a marine biologist with the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in San Diego, California, and a member of the team." Why do humans think they're so goddamn smart. Everything we know is based off theory--math doesn't even exist. But yet we continue on as if we objectively knew everything. You can't just unnaturally reduce a living number of a species and expect that once it drops so low, the opposite effect due to human interaction will occur.


"are accidentally drowning in the gill nets local fishers deploy for fish and shrimp"

no. there is no such thing as accidently in this instance. The ocean is their home and we're invading on them; saying it's an accident implies it's their fault. It's not the fish's fault in the least, it's ours. We essentially did this to them on purpose.


Stop defending the culprits here: man

Axel Enuset
Axel Enuset

Impressive to read that the vaquitas' highly efficient biological mechanisms (swim bladder) lead them to extinction...

lisa earnest
lisa earnest

@Kathi McGinnis Wickizer By the same rationale you used, we should all lose interest and credibility in your statement because you used the term fish instead of cetacean?  No, I looked at the take-home of your statement and skipped the glaring error and read what you had to say.  So you're basically saying that because the author didn't qualify the statement to "around 97", this isn't important?  Does that mean that there are thousands out there that are hiding and not talking?  Maybe they're audio shy and don't communicate when recorders are in the water.  In dealing with biological aspects of science, absolutes are rare.  Get the take home message that there is a huge decline and that these are animals (not fishy ones like Stephen Van Kampen-Lewis points out) and are close to extinction.  

Stephen Van Kampen-Lewis
Stephen Van Kampen-Lewis

@Kathi McGinnis Wickizer It is quite possible to count a species of porpoise in the wild. The fact that you (Kathi McGinnis Wickizer) called the vaquita porpoise a fish is unfortunate because you instantly lost credibility and my interest in reading your ignorant comment. 

Chris Job
Chris Job

@Kathi McGinnis Wickizer They have a very limited range in which they exist, making it much easier to accurately estimate their numbers. They are (to human knowledge) not found anywhere else on earth. Humans have been mistaken before (for example with the coelacanth), but you're missing the point. The point is that more than likely, less than 100 vaquitas remain in existence. If it's 103 or 97 makes no difference to the urgency of the situation.

lisa earnest
lisa earnest

@Stephen White They've been in Cali for a couple hundred years now.  Long enough to determine species on this side of the world were put there for human usage, no matter the costs.

lisa earnest
lisa earnest

@Guy Holder Where exactly, in the article was global warming, or even climate change mentioned?  Explain how you you made that jump, 'cause I certainly missed the stairs, even the elevator!  This is about multi-national gill-netting by-catch and it's effects on this animal (others weren't mentioned).  

lisa earnest
lisa earnest

@Jose Rene Mata Lose one animal and ALL of the conservation concerns go away?  Not worth more then a mere point-out.  Get into the ocean (or other natural environment) with only your skill and knowledge, which are the only tools these and other animals have to survive.  Your tertiary status would be demoted quite quickly.

lisa earnest
lisa earnest

@C. Dufour That's what I was wondering.  Are they trying to harvest sperm and eggs as they do for other species?  Is there another cetacean that is genetically close enough for hybridization?  Is there suitable habitat where a re-location program might be successful?

Marius Pfeiffer
Marius Pfeiffer

@Axel Enuset The swim bladder is a bony fish's buoyancy organ so it is actually belonging to the Totoaba, not the Vaquita. Double check article.

lauri hamilton
lauri hamilton

@Marius Pfeiffer @Axel Enuset although you are right, the illegal catch of the Totoaba for its covetted swim bladder for chinese cuisine, is still thought to be the main reason for the Vaquita decline over the last decade or so.



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