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If somebody asked you what the world’s rarest and most endangered marine mammal was, would you know it was the vaquita porpoise?

Gulf of California  Environmental Impact at River's End

Image Credit: Natural History Magazine from Flickr

Characterised by 'the large dark ring around its eyes and dark patches on its lips thst form a thin line from the mouth to the pectoral fins', the vaquita is the world’s smallest cetacean. It is only found close to shore of the northern end of Mexico’s Gulf of California, otherwise known as the Sea of Cortez, and the species has never been held in captivity.

Its name translates from Spanish as ‘little cow’, and its unique appearance is often likened to a smiling panda.

However, a not-so-fun-fact is that we are disturbingly close to losing them forever.

The History of the Vaquita

The species itself was only discovered in 1958. The population was never large, according to genetic evidence, but the current estimated figure is half of what it was in 2016, with a staggering '97% drop from the year before that'.

The population remaining only amounts to 30.

For this reason, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has listed the vaquita as critically endangered.

 A vaquita

Image Credit: Paula Olson, NOAA from Wikimedia Commons

Why is it so endangered?

The species has a relatively short life expectancy, with the average vaquita living for an estimated 20 years. Less than half of the estimated 30 individuals that remain are believed to be females of reproductive age. One female will only give birth to up to a single calf every couple of years, so it is clear that the porpoise species will struggle to reproduce faster than its population is depleting.

However, the primary reason for the dwindling population is that the vaquita is a victim of ‘bycatch’, meaning that they are often unintentionally caught and drowned in gill nets that are used in illegal fishing operations.

These nets, which hang vertically in the water, are designed to catch the totoaba fish which is endemic to the Gulf of California. The swim bladder of the totoaba fish is a highly-valued and highly-demanded 'delicacy' in China.

This fish species and the vaquita are very similar in size, meaning that the porpoise frequently gets caught up in the gill nets, whether they are actively being used or left abandoned in the sea, and consequently drowns.

So, what is being done to help the species?

In 2017, the Mexican government decided to enforce a permanent gill net ban in the Upper Gulf of California, following a partial ban that was introduced in 2015. The “development of new fishing gear and techniques to allow local communities to resume legal, sustainable fishing activities” was also agreed to.

In response to this move, WWF-Mexico said: “This is a fantastic and encouraging step forward in the path to saving the vaquita, provided the ban is fully enforced and accompanied by fishing alternatives for local communities".

The ban followed an agreement between the Mexican government, the Carlos Slim Foundation, and the DiCaprio Foundation.

Leonardo DiCaprio has long been an environmental activist, having set up the DiCaprio Foundation in 1998. It is a non-profit organisation dedicated to advocating environmental awareness.

The actor himself has expressed his commitment to helping save the vaquita on Twitter.

Most recently, he promoted “Sea of Shadows”, a feature documentary released this year that he co-produced, which “follows undercover investigators, environmentalists, journalists, and the Mexican Navy on their desperate last-minute effort to rescue the [vaquita] from extinction”.

The documentary is described as having “the intensity of a Hollywood thriller” and hopes to raise awareness of the plight of the vaquita.

A further initiative to raise awareness is “International Save the Vaquita Day” which, this year, is on 6th July. An annual event, it directs the world’s attention to what the species is going through, what needs to be done to prevent its extinction, and what people can do to help.

It also aims to gather more signatures for relevant petitions, such as Viva Vaquita’s petition demanding that the Mexican government steps up their efforts to save the species, and to fundraise for associated educational and research work.

In Autumn 2017, the Mexican government did attempt an effort to move as many vaquitas as possible to a protective sanctuary, which would provide them with protection until vaquita-friendly fishing methods were adopted. However, this effort was soon suspended on discovering that the creatures reacted poorly to being in new surroundings, resulting in the death of one female.

WWF has also contributed to the fight to protect the vaquita, through working with partners to retrieve “lost or abandoned illegal “ghost” gill nets, which continue to entangle and kill vaquitas and other marine species” and through supporting acoustic monitoring of the population.

Yet, despite the efforts to save the vaquita, the species has not yet seen a population increase, and their situation is becoming increasingly concerning. Illegal totoaba trafficking operations still occur, and abandoned gill nets remain in the sea, meaning that the vaquita is still in grave danger, and will ultimately become extinct unless the use of gill nets is actually ended, once and for all.

Read more about how you can get involved with International Save the Vaquita Day 2019

Lead Image: Paula Olson, NOAA from Wikimedia Commons 

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