July 8 is International Save the Vaquita Day, and emergency plans are being made to help save the porpoise from extinction.
Latest estimates indicate that only 30 individuals remain alive in their only habitat - the northern Gulf of California. However, the Mexican government is readying to relocate some individuals to a temporary sanctuary with the assistance of the National Marine Mammal Foundation, the Marine Mammal Center, the Chicago Zoological Society and a multi-institutional, international conservation team.
The precipitous decline of the vaquita has been primarily driven by accidental deaths of the porpoises in fishing gillnets. In 2015, the Mexican government instituted a two-year gillnet ban over the range of the vaquita. Additionally, the Mexican government implemented a financial compensation program to provide income to fishermen affected by the ban.
Despite strong enforcement, illegal gillnets are still being set to catch an endangered fish known as totoaba, the swim bladders of which fetch large sums of money on Hong Kong and Chinese black markets. Thus, despite tens of millions of dollars invested by the Mexican government in preventing vaquita by-catch, the population continues to decline.
“We are watching this precious native species disappear before our eyes,” said Rafael Pacchiano, Mexico’s Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources. “This critical rescue effort is a priority for the Mexican government, and we are dedicated to providing the necessary resources in order to give the plan its best chance of success.”
The relocation is expected to begin in October. Catching and caring for vaquitas may prove impossible, and officials estimate the plan will cost more than $5 million in 2017. The project will rely on a variety of funding sources, including donations from the public, private organizations and non-profit groups.
• The vaquita has only been known to science since 1958.
• Vaquita means “little cow” in Spanish.
• At about 5 feet (1.5 m) long, it’s the smallest species of cetacean.
• The range (ca. 4,000 sq. km) is only about a quarter of the size of metropolitan Los Angeles.
• The vaquita lives only about a 4.5 hour drive from San Diego.
• Unlike other porpoises, vaquitas give birth only every other year.
• Calves are born in the spring (March/April).
• They live to be about 20-21 years old.
• Vaquitas have never been held captive in aquaria.
• The vaquita is the rarest and most endangered species of marine mammal in the world.