Valiant Vaquitas

By Makenna Adams

The world’s rarest marine mammal is on the verge of extinction. According to WWF, only about 10 Vaquitas remain alive in the wild. Their status is aptly considered “critically endangered.”

Vaquitas, native only to Mexico’s Gulf of California, became known to zoologists only 62 years ago, in 1958. After studying the morphology of skull specimens found on beaches in the Gulf of California regions, Kenneth S. Norris and William N. McFarland recognized the existence of the species. Yet for thirty years, their discovery went unrecognized; not until 1985 did fresh Vaquita specimens allow scientists to describe the external appearance of the porpoise fully.

Because Vaquitas were discovered so late in the history of marine biology, little was known up until now about their lives. Consequently, little has been known about how lethal illegal fishing operations have been for the Vaquita populations, and how exponentially their population has decayed in the last few years. Caught and drowned in gillnets in marine protected areas within Mexico’s Gulf of California, the Vaquita now represents “the plight of cetaceans as a whole” as stated by WWF. 

The vaquita is the world’s smallest cetacean, measuring under five feet from nose to a tail. Stunning dark rings around their eyes and dark patches on their lips form a thin line from their mouths to their pectoral fins; their unique markings make them easy to identify. A dark gray color spans across their dorsal surface, and they have pale gray sides. Their soft underside, susceptible to injury, is white with long, light gray markings. Newborn vaquita have darker coloration and a wide gray fringe of color running from their heads to their flukes. Frightful, they swim away from boats and humans if approached, but spotting fishnets is difficult for them. Once they are caught in a net, the Vaquita stands no chance of surviving. 

While their situation is grim, there still exist ways to help the Vaquita. Chiefly, awareness must be spread about the Vaquita species as a whole and their endangered status. With enough push, the Mexican government just may be forced into regulating the illegal fishing activity more closely. Raising awareness about issues that affect vaquitas will simultaneously help the whole of the porpoise species, as they too are affected by the same threat.  Shopping for sustainable seafood is another concious way to make a difference. Entanglement in fishing nets is what is driving this species to extinction, and it is also the most dangerous threat for all 6 of the other species of porpoise. When buying seafood, refer to the Seafood Watch program in the United States or SeaChoice or Ocean Wise in Canada, for to find sustainably fished or farmed seafood. Specifically, avoid Mexican shrimp: the main seafood harvested by illegal fishing activity. Conservation organizationsglobally have issued a boycott on shrimp caught in Mexico, with the goal of garnering enough attention to initiate a government step-up of its enforcement efforts in the Sea of Cortez.

Additionally, support of the Gulf of California can help the Vaquita population. Tourism around the Sea of Cortez can become a solution to socio economic problems, instead of fishing. By touring the region, you can generate funds that can lend to its transformation, which can help the Vaquitas. Finally, this holiday season, in lieu of traditional gifts, please consider putting your dollars elsewhere as a chance to help the Vaquita; raise awareness and contribute to research and conservation efforts for the vaquita by making a donation. Below, I’ve attached organizations and campaings you can donate to, along with additional resources on how to help Vaquitas. 

List of Resources:

Contact Mexican officials:

Presidente Andrés Manuel López Obrador
Residencia oficial de Los Pinos, Molino del Rey s/n,
Col. San Miguel Chapultepec, Distrito Federal. C.P. 11850

Seafood Watch

SeaChoice

Ocean Wise

Mexican shrimp boycott: Boycott Mexican Shrimp: Save the Vaquita Porpoise

Adopting a vaquita: https://give.porpoise.org/gift/adopt-a-vaquita/