The Vaquita (Phocoena sinus) has only been recognised as a cetacean species for less than 70 years, being formally declared a new species in 1958, after the discovery of a small skull in 1950. The Vaquita is one of only seven extant porpoise species and is genetically extremely rare. ‘Vaquita’ means ‘little cow’ in Spanish, and individuals are less than five feet long, with an adult female weight of 50kg. Vaquita are dark grey-brown in colour, with small, distinctive black patches around their eyes and mouth, which contains small spade-shaped teeth. They have a rounded head but, unlike dolphins, have no rostrum, only a small, blunt beak tip.
Vaquita are a non-migratory cetacean species, endemic to the northern Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez) in Mexico, where they have lived for more than 2.5 million years, in an area measuring 4000 km2. Their distribution is restricted by the colder, deeper waters to the south of their range, and by land to the north, east and west. Although most porpoise species prefer colder waters, the Vaquita lives in waters that can exceed 32°C in warmer weather and have evolved a larger dorsal fin and flippers, and are polydactylous, with an extra digit (finger bone) in each flipper, to assist with heat dissipation, so they can survive in warmer waters.
Conservation status of the Vaquita
IUCN classify the Vaquita as ‘Critically Endangered’ with a Decreasing population trend, and 18 reproductively mature individuals remaining in the population (IUCN 2017). The population was estimated to be around 567 individuals in 1997 (Jaramillo-Legorreta AM et al. 1999). Historical estimates prior to then are unknown. A recent study estimated a 98.6% decline in the population since 2011 (despite implementation of an emergency gillnet ban in 2015), with 19 individuals remaining at the end of 2018, although this number could be as low as 6 and as high as 22 (Jaramillo-Legorreta AM et al. 2019).
Why is the Vaquita ‘Critically Endangered’?
The Vaquita is the most well-known example of incidental capture in fishing gear and increased mortality in cetaceans (see Bycatch & Incidental Capture of Cetaceans under Impacts). The Vaquita is facing extinction because their population is declining rapidly due to high annual mortality rate from incidental capture in illegal gillnets (despite the emergency ban). Gillnets are mesh nets specifically designed to capture the target species, Totoaba macdonaldi (Totoaba) by the gills, but Vaquitas get caught in these nets and drown. The totoaba are also an endangered species but are being poached in illegal fisheries.
What is being done to help save the Vaquita?
Various conservation strategies to save the Vaquita have been recommended:
- Enforcement of penalties for illegal poaching of totoaba in Vaquita habitat
- Adoption of the CITES protocol to combat illegal trade in totoaba
- Temporary ban (2015) and permanent ban of gillnets in Vaquita habitat (2017)
- Permanent ban on night-time fishing (2017)
- Monitoring of fishing vessels at entry and exit points of the protected zone
The Mexican government has been slow in their response to calls from the public and the international scientific community to save the Vaquita. Their full commitment is necessary to prevent the Vaquita’s extinction, but time is running out.
How can we help?
Support conservation organisations working to save the Vaquita from extinction, including Viva Vaquita, Porpoise Conservation Society, National Marine Mammal Foundation and the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), an international team of scientists working with the Mexican government.
Take part in the annual International Save the Vaquita Day, held in July each year.
Refuse to purchase seafood caught in gillnets, illegal or otherwise.
Bessesen, Brooke., (2018), Vaquita – Science, Politics and Crime in the Sea of Cortez, https://islandpress.org/books/vaquita
IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group – Vaquita, https://iucn-csg.org/vaquita/
Jaramillo-Legorreta, A.M., Rojas-Bracho, L. and Gerrodette, T. (1999), A new abundance estimate for Vaquitas: First step for recovery. Marine Mammal Science, 15: 957-973. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1748-7692.1999.tb00872.x
Jaramillo-Legorreta AM et al. (2019). Decline towards extinction of Mexico’s vaquita porpoise (Phocoena sinus). R. Soc. Open sci. 6: 190598. https://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rsos.190598
National Marine Mammal Foundation, Vaquita Porpoise (Phocoena sinus), https://www.nmmf.org/marine-mammal/vaquita-porpoise/
Norris, K., & McFarland, W. (1958). A New Harbor Porpoise of the Genus Phocoena from the Gulf of California. Journal of Mammalogy, 39(1), 22-39. https://doi.org/10.2307/1376606
Porpoise Conservation Society, https://porpoise.org/
Rojas-Bracho, L. & Taylor, B.L. 2017. Phocoena sinus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T17028A50370296. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2017-2.RLTS.T17028A50370296.en. Downloaded on 29 July 2021.
Viva Vaquita, https://vivavaquita.org/