The vulnerable vaquita: Immediate action needed to save critically endangered porpoise

Co-authored by Erica Cirino

When most people think of cetaceans, they think of the most iconic species: dolphins and whales. The vaquita—a small gray porpoise with an elusive lifestyle that’s native to Mexico’s Gulf of California—isn’t well known to most people, despite its “Critical” status on the Endangered Species List. But thanks to the efforts of scientists, this vulnerable cetacean is beginning to move into the spotlight, for a serious reason: Without immediate action to protect its population, the vaquita will surely go extinct.

The critically endangered vaquita. Photo by SEMARNAT (Flickr).
The critically endangered vaquita. Photo by SEMARNAT (Flickr).

Last spring, a group of researchers belonging to the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) estimated just 60 vaquitas remained in the wild, representing a more than 92 percent population decline since 1997. In November 2016 CIRVA updated its population estimate to 30 vaquitas, an even more dire number.

Mostly, vaquitas are dying as unintentionally captured animals, or “bycatch,” trapped in illegal gillnets fishers use to catch another endangered marine species called the totoaba. The totoaba is an enormous, 300-pound fish. It contains a swim bladder used in Chinese medicine to make a soup called fish maw, which is believed to boost fertility.

Totoaba fish. Photo by SEMARNAT (Flickr).
Totoaba fish. Photo by SEMARNAT (Flickr).
A decorated "Fish maw" kiosk in a Melaka, Malaysia, shopping mall, with stacks of dried totoaba swim bladders on display. Photo by Vmenkov (Wikimedia Commons)
A decorated “Fish maw” kiosk in a Melaka, Malaysia, shopping mall, with stacks of dried totoaba swim bladders on display. Photo by Vmenkov (Wikimedia Commons)

In May 2015, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto called for an emergency two-year ban on gillnets throughout the range of the vaquita. But illegal totoaba fishing is causing the vaquita population to continue to plummet. Scientists agree time to save the endangered porpoise is running out—fast.

“CIRVA has been recommending for many, many years that all gillnets should be banned in the Upper Gulf if vaquitas are to survive as a species,” something that would require the development of new, vaquita-safe fishing gear, says CIRVA scientists Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho of Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change and Barbara Taylor of NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center. “Sadly, the lack of interest in vaquita conservation by fishing authorities has made progress on developing alternative fishing gear much too slow.”

Rojas-Bracho and Taylor say CIRVA has worked to introduce people living off the Gulf of California to economic activities other than fishing, such as tourism and crafts. While CIRVA saw some progress in getting people out of the totoaba fishing business, they say the total number of totoaba fishers—including non-locals living outside the Gulf—has increased, probably because the fish is valuable when sold on the black market.

Another major effort to protect the vaquita includes the establishment of a vaquita refuge in the Gulf of California in 2005. Despite the creation of this intended vaquita safe zone, illegal fishing there is rampant. Experts report that on one day in September 2014, 90 fishing boats were photographed inside the vaquita refuge.

Dead vaquita caught in a gillnet set for totoaba. Photo by NOAA Fisheries West Coast (Flickr).

Vaquitas often are hard to spot, swimming in shallow water echolocating continuously to find their prey. Together these factors mean it’s more helpful for scientists monitoring vaquita populations to listen for the porpoises as opposed to looking for them. Besides being a more efficient way to collect data on vaquitas, acoustic studies are less expensive than visual monitoring from boats. One 1997 estimate found that the cost of one vaquita sighting was about $4,400 while one acoustic detection cost just $250, according to Armando Jaramillo-Legorreta, of CIRWA and Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change.

Between 1997 and 2007 CIRWA scientists randomly deployed 15 acoustic detectors throughout the Gulf of California. In one study CIRWA scientists deployed several dozen more detectors between 2011 and 2013 in and around the vaquita refuge. The detectors recorded vaquitas’ vocalizations continuously for three months at a time over five years. Once recorded, the vocalizations are processed by pattern-recognition software and that data is later analyzed by a human expert to help quantify the number of individual vaquitas that are vocalizing.

Besides discovering a major decline in the vaquita population, CIRWA scientists were surprised to discover just how significantly fishing gear can impact a species in such a short period of time. It proves “that saving a species is an international effort even if distributed in only one country’s waters,” say Rojas-Bracho and Taylor. What’s more, CIRWA’s latest acoustic data demonstrates the importance of robust population monitoring for endangered species.

Vaquita. Photo by Paula Olson, NOAA (Wikimedia Commons).
Vaquita. Photo by Paula Olson, NOAA (Wikimedia Commons).

“Being able to monitor status every year is key for many other species in the world,” say Rojas-Bracho and Taylor. “One of the challenges to conservation biologist is to estimate population size and trends of small populations. We have showed how critical acoustic methods were for vaquitas to solve this and think similar approaches could be used for many other species.”

As conservationists push for greater political protection for vaquitas, CIRWA scientists are continuing their Gulf of California acoustic monitoring research. They hope that more data will spark stronger vaquita recovery efforts that could save the species from extinction.

Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.
  • Rosanne Fischer

    We must do everything we can to save these rare creatures. Gone is forever.

  • Sam

    So interesting 🙂

  • Mary Coffey

    Please stop this practice!

  • Jamie

    They need MORE DATA?! There are 30 left. When will they have the data? When the vaquita is extinct? That is just ridiculous. This type of “conservation” is failing species. It’s up to all of us — including scientists and conservation organizations — to pressure governments to outlaw hunting these animals and properly funding law enforcement. It’s an international issue.

  • Mike Forster

    It might be too late, but I suggest the following:
    Simply pay the shrimp and other fisherman to take 2 years off from fishing in the upper Gulf of California habitat of the Vaquita. I would expect that this would cost no more than a few million US dollars. Even if it were $20 to $50 million dollars, grants from a few foundations and a couple of billionaires would easily accomplish this. 2 years could be enough time to determine a permanent solution.

  • Simon Stocker

    Why do the Chinese need to increase their virility? There are too many people in the world already.

  • Adam Goodfellow

    More data… Here’s some data: The angle on the deck of the Titanic is now 36.8 degrees… The angle is now 39.2 degrees…. The angle is …glug glug splutter… Gasp… 43.8 degr….

    The cynic in me says the conservation is a business just like the fishermen and the Chinese “medicine” aka placebo effect merchants. Do they need more data? Or more grants?

    Fingers out, billionaires, because if you buy the fishermen the species survives.

  • William Terrell

    Ban gill netting for at least a couple of years to measure recovery of this beautiful creature. If it works,regulate a season, if recovery is not acceptable, BAN Gill Netting PERMANENTLY

  • Jay de Silva

    With just 30 left, its too late to stop fishermen using nets. These remaining vaquitas should be captured and released in some sanctuary area where there is no fishing.

  • Jenny

    Peter act now.

  • Andrew

    Cease this practice please.

  • Jenny

    Pleas sav these beautiful creatures before they’re lost.


    Dear Mike Forster, I agree with you 100%, let us appeal to compassionate and responsible people with money, to save and preserve as many endangered species, especially the
    VAQUITA ! ! ! as there only are so few left ! I must also stress that a sanctuary large enough should be designated as soon as possible and the deadly gillnets are banned immediately ! ! !

  • Rey Hudson

    Look, a “ban” with “90 fishing boats” counted is no ban at ALL! Its a JOKE! a politically correct slap in the face for everyone who has attempted to change something and protect these inhabitants of the earth, who were there BEFORE nets and fishermen. A “ban”, a serious protectionary endeavor MUST have “TEETH” in it. These fishermen (“legal” or “illegal”) must be stopped by an immediate injunction (and possibly artilliary, if they’re so defiant… something they UNDERSTAND, and their kickbacks can’t buy off. There is not time to wait for an appeal to go through “normal channels”.

    Doesn’t anybody GET that. Sixty a couple of years ago; thirty today: There won’t be ZIP! We’ll ALL have plenty of time THEN to pontificate about it… but it won’t matter, not to the animals who are being crassly sacrificed.

  • Charmaine Shannon

    “EXTINCTION” is FOREVER !!!! We cannot let this Happen !! Please Do All that can be Done to Prevent this and SAVE this Species !!!! Thank-You …….

  • Mandi

    Save these animals.

  • Scarlet lin

    Please save these lovely babies . We need to save them for our future generations . They are so lovely

  • Geert Geraedts

    Catch the poor annimals and put them in a garded reservationarea. Otherwise they will be dead in a few months.

  • Lesley Wuyts

    All the alnimals have problems… for sur!! One reasen= humans :-/

  • Sorin G.

    Good luck with that …

  • Nicoleta

    Salvati flora, fauna

  • Mireille Urbain

    Please, stop fishing. Vaquita is rare and it’s necessary to save her.

  • Dalile OUAI

    Please choose compassion, stop cruelty


    must ban the gill nets that are killing the vaquita porpouise to save it from illegal fishing now.

  • Christiane Schneebeli

    Save these beautiful animals ! Stop fishing them !

  • J. David Scott

    “Extinct” is forever. We HAVE to save these beautiful creatures.

  • WAU Usahanun

    Stop & pursue this criminal greed rabble and this deformity  –  instantly!

  • Hilary davies

    We haven’t time to wait for Chinese medicine practices to change. Please find drastic ways to stop this fishing practice immediately before this lovely species is extinct.

  • Benjamin bramwell

    I agree we must do everything we can to help the vaquita from going extinct

  • Eddie

    Why not take a few of these animals and move them to a safe haven where they can repopulate themselves? This is just the beginning of all the animals humanity will drive to extinction.

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