The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is a small porpoise (whales, dolphins, and porpoises are called cetaceans by scientists). It is one of only seven species of true porpoises, and is the only one that occurs in warm waters of the eastern Pacific Ocean. It is found in a tiny area in the extreme northern Gulf of California, in Baja California, Mexico. It is a unique species, with a body shape and color pattern unlike that of any other. It has a tall dorsal fin (for a porpoise) and a beautiful color pattern on the face, with dark eye rings and lip patches that look like an application of “goth” make-up. There is only one small population, and if the species goes extinct, it will be gone forever..
The vaquita has probably always been a rare species. But in the last few decades, the small population plummeted by about 20-40% per year, as illegal gillnets set for fish and shrimp kill more porpoises than are born. The nearly-invisible gillnets trap vaquitas and they drown. The decline rate has accelerated in recent years, and the current population is less than 50 individuals. If prompt progress is not made, the vaquita will be extinct in a few short years. The very perilous situation of the vaquita has been recognized by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which lists it as Critically Endangered.
Can the Vaquita be Saved?
Yes! Unlike some endangered species that have no place left to live in the wild, the vaquita’s home in the Gulf of California is clean and healthy. The only real problem is the gillnets that entangle and kill vaquitas there. If the fishing practices can be modified to be 'vaquita-safe' in the small area where they live, the species will likely recover. However, gillnets need to be eliminated in the species' range, and capturing at least some individuals may be the only way to prevent extinction in the next year or two. With your help, we can save still the vaquita!!
The vaquita occupies a very limited range in the northern Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez), just south of the mouth of the Colorado River. It can be found just a short drive from San Diego and Tijuana.
Photos taken under permit (Oficio No. DR/488/08 from the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturale Protegidas (CONANP/Secretaría del Medio Ambiente y Recursos Naturales (SEMARNAT), within a natural protected area subject to special management and decreed as such by the Mexican Government. This work was made possible thanks to the collaboration and support of the Coordinador de Investigación y Conservación de Mamíferos Marinos at the Instituto Nacional de Ecología (INE).