Vaquita Synopsis

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The vaquita, a small porpoise found only in the northern Gulf of California in Mexico, is the most endangered of the world’s 128 species of marine mammal. Vaquitas are endangered due to accidental deaths in fishing nets set for fish and shrimp.  Fewer than 100 vaquitas remain and the species will soon be extinct unless the mortality in fishing nets is eliminated. 

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Decline in vaquita numbers over time. CIRVA V report. Photo credit: Tom Jefferson 2008. Entanglement in gillnets has posed a risk to vaquita for decades. Photo: C. Faesi / Proyecto Vaquita 1992.

Vaquitas have among the smallest geographical distribution of any of the whales, dolphins and porpoises (see red box on map). They live in the northern Gulf of California’s highly productive waters which are also excellent for producing fish and shrimp sold for both domestic and U.S. consumption.  Fishing is a major source of income for the local communities and gillnets are the most commonly used gear. Gillnets are designed to entangle the targeted fish and shrimp but vaquitas can also become accidentally wrapped in the nets and drown. 

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Small-type trawl gear approved to replace gillnets. Courtesy of WWF Mexico 2013.

The vaquita's fate has long been tied to that of the totoaba, a large fish that grows to over 6 feet and over 200 pounds. This endangered fish is prized for its swim bladder (an internal air-filled sac that helps the fish maintain bouyancy), which is exported to China where it is used in soup, as traditional medicine and as an investment. Thousands of swim bladders are dried and smuggled out of Mexico, often through the U.S. Fishermen may receive up to $8,500 for each kilogram of totoaba swim bladder, equivalent to a large portion of a year’s income from legal fishing activities. 

To save the vaquita, scientists agree that the only solution is to totally eliminate fishing with gillnets within vaquita habitat. Without precedence anywhere in the world, Mexico is responding to the urgent need for action. Working alongside scientists, non-governmental agencies and foundations, the government of Mexico has taken a number of actions over the years to reduce the number of gillnets; these actions may have slowed, but did not stop, the decline of the species.  Then, in April of 2015, President Peña Nieto traveled to San Felipe, one of the main fishing towns, and announced a two-year emergency gillnet ban throughout vaquita habitat combined with enhanced multi-agency enforcement led by the Navy and compensation to the fishermen and related industries for their loss of income. In September 2015, the government of Mexico also launched an extensive survey of the vaquita population using an approach that includes both ship-based visual monitoring and an expanded grid of acoustic detectors throughout vaquita habitat. 

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Satellite view of the northern Gulf of California with the vaquita distribution shown by yellow cross hatching. The gillnet exclusion zone for the 2-year ban is within the area bounded by the red line. The Vaquita Refuge, which remains a no fishing zone, is outlined in blue. Note the correspondence between the vaquita distribution and the muddy water that results from strong tidal currents stirring up the muddy bottom resulting from deposits laid down by the outflow of the Colorado River.

The ban is the last chance for vaquita and, for the first time, also creates opportunities to implement alternative fishing methods that do not endanger vaquita, to support new and sustainable livelihoods and to permanently ban gillnets. 

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Last modified: 4/12/2016