Vaquita porpoises have puzzled scientists since their discovery in 1958. Regrettably, their populations have gotten much smaller over time due to illegal fishing practices. In this post, we highlight that while these “little cows” may be difficult to protect, we should try everything we can to save them.
Vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is the most endangered marine mammal on Earth. Vaquita means “little cow” in Spanish. The name comes from the easily recognizable dark circles around the porpoise’s eyes and lips. Vaquita’s body fades from a dark grey into a white underbelly. As these small cetaceans age, their coloring transitions from a dark grey to a light grey.
They are the smallest cetaceans; adults are only 4-5ft (120-150 cm) and calves are about 2.5ft (75 cm). Interestingly, females grow to be larger than males but males have larger fins. They reach sexual maturity from 3 to 6 years old and researchers believe females give birth every other year to a single calf. Therefore, populations naturally grow at a slow rate.
As members of the toothed whale family, they use echolocation to find their prey. Vaquitas tend to hunt near lagoons and shallow waters. They feed on small fish (such as croakers and sea trout), crustaceans (such as shrimp), and cephalopods (such as squid).
Vaquitas also have the smallest habitat of any marine mammal. In fact, their entire habitat is about 4,476 square-mile area (11 600 Km2) within the northern Gulf of California, Mexico. It roughly corresponds to the size of Connecticut in the USA, or Northern Ireland if you live in Europe.
A survey conducted in 1997 calculated the first precise estimate of their population. Scientists estimated there were a total of 567 individuals. By 2008, the population was down to approximately 245. Tragically, the current estimated population is fewer than 20 individuals. That is a significant population decline!
Unsurprisingly, humans are the largest threat to these porpoises as vaquitas have no natural predators. The most significant threat comes from illegal fishing operations across the Gulf of California. Gill nets and long nets set by fishermen to trap large groups of fish, have devastated vaquita populations. Unfortunately, these nets catch anything and everything that comes through their path. Targets range from the intended fish to sea turtles and dolphins. Consequently, the retrieval of these nets is often what kills trapped animals. The bycatch, or unintended catch from these nets, is the biggest cause of Vaquita deaths.
Please support organizations like Sea Shepherd and their Vaquita Operation!