July is the turn of the smallest and until recently, one of the least well known porpoises, the vaquita. WDCS has previously funded work on these endangered cetaceans and to learn more about these special animals we turn to the experts from ¡Viva Vaquita! who are studying them in the field and working to ensure that they're still here in years to come.
The smallest porpoise in the world is also the most endangered cetacean on the planet. Meet the vaquita, just discovered in the 1950s by the late Dr. Ken Norris, from the University of California at Santa Cruz. In less than 60 years, the vaquita is now on the verge of extinction.
Just four years ago, the Yangtze River dolphin, or baiji, became extinct through massive habitat destruction in China. The vaquita, however, lives in pristine waters in the Gulf of California, and does not face extinction from environmental causes. The threat to vaquita survival is the high occurrence of incidental catch in the nets of fishermen, who are primarily fishing for shrimp. With only about 220 remaining, the vaquita lives in a relatively small area in the Gulf of California off the coast of San Felipe, which is only about a 4 hour drive from the United States/Mexican border.
Much of its range is protected as a Biosphere Preserve, but many are accidently taken in nets outside of the Preserve’s boundaries. The vaquita has been designated as a highly endangered species, yet it is difficult to patrol the area where they still exist. It was a tragedy to lose the baiji, but it should not be a precedent to lose another cetacean species. The vaquita can be saved! The Mexican and US governments have been involved and need to be encouraged to continue their protection of the vaquita range. The Biosphere Preserve should be expanded to cover the entire vaquita range, which is less than the size of Los Angeles. Fishing practices need to be changed, including buy outs of fishermen and the switch to escapable, non-lethal nets. It is recognized that there are not many sources of livelihood in that particular part of Baja California, but perhaps more eco-tourism and conservation-related businesses can grow to replace dependence on the fishing economy. Avoid purchasing seafood from companies that buy shrimp and fish caught in vaquita habitat. Monetary donations are being collected to help local fishermen find alternative methods of employment that is not lethal to vaquitas. Funds are also needed for monitoring the waters of the vaquita range to ensure that their environment is safe and free of nets. It is extremely important to create awareness and educate people about the plight of this charismatic animal before it is too late.
No good photographs of the vaquita existed prior to 2008. Dr. Tom Jefferson, a marine mammal scientist and graduate of Moss Landing Marine Labs, and his research team, travelled to Baja to gather information and start a catalog to identify individual porpoises from their unique dorsal fins. After 17 days in the vaquita range, the team finally managed to locate and photograph some of the elusive animals. Their photographs show a diminutive porpoise with black eye patches and lips, with a pronounced dorsal fin. Previous photos of the vaquita were of dead animals taken on land after removal from fishing nets.
Many environmental groups are starting to become aware of the consequences of ignoring the danger to the vaquita. With so few animals remaining, even a take as small as a few individuals per year adversely impacts the population. The vaquita, or ‘little cow’ is a uniquely Mexican animal, yet many residents consider it a mythical animal because they are so rarely seen. On the Monterey Peninsula, California, a group of conservationists associated with the American Cetacean Society and Save the Whales have formed a ¡Viva Vaquita! Task Force. World renowned sculptor, Randy Puckett, whose whales grace the ceiling of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, has designed a bronze vaquita sculpture, with proceeds to benefit vaquita conservation measures in Baja. The group has also set up vivavaquita.org and Facebook page to share information about the highly endangered species.
Photos taken under permit (Oficio No. DR/488/08) from the Secretaria de Medio Ambiente y Resursos Naturales (SEMARNAT), within a natural protected area subject to special management and decreed as such by the Mexican Government.