Vanishing Vaquita

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Marine mammals are some of the most beloved animals on the planet. Whales, dolphins, and porpoises hold a special place in our hearts. In many ways they are like us, with highly developed brains and complex social lives. Humans have exploited cetaceans for centuries, driving many species to the brink of extinction. However, no species is closer to falling off the precipice and disappearing forever than the vaquita.

What is a vaquita?

The vaquita, Spanish for “little cow,” is a small porpoise species found only in the waters if the Gulf of California off Mexico. They are amount the smallest cetaceans, averring only five feet length and around 100 pounds. Like all porpoises, they have compact bodies topped with a triangular dorsal fin. The top halves of their bodies are gray in color with a with underbelly, providing excellent camouflage while swimming in open water.

What do vaquitas eat?

Vaquitas are predators, using their highly developed sense of echolocation to hunt for fish, squid, and crustaceans. Analysis of their stomach contents shows that they prefer bottom-dwelling fish that inhabit shallower depths. They tend to hunt fairly close to shore in turbid water less than 100 feet deep.

Why are vaquitas endangered?

Vaquitas have never been hunted for their meat, blubber, or oil. Instead, they are endangered due to being caught as bycatch. Many fisherman in the Gulf of Valifornia use gillnets to fish for totoaba, which is a similar size to the vaquita and hunted for their swim bladders. Vaquita get caught in the nets and wind up drowning. They current population is estimated at around 100 individuals and the vaquita is considered the world’s most endangered marine mammal. If their numbers continue to decline, they will be at risk of extinction due to a lack of genetic diversity and inbreeding.

What is being done to help vaquitas?

Mexico is in charge of vaquita conservation, and it has been a very uphill battle. Laws have been put in place to ban the use of gillnets and quell the totoaba market, and a nature reserve has been established to protect prime vaquita habitat, but it has been difficult to enforce fishing regulations. Attempts to create a captive breeding program have failed, since the animals are extremely prone to stress and tend to die in captivity.

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