Prior to its discovery in 1958, no one knew what a vaquita was. Almost 60 years later, there is a possibility that we may never see one again.
The vaquita, or “little cow” in Spanish, is a type of cetacean that is sub classified as a porpoise. Other cetaceans include whales and dolphins, though the vaquita is the smallest of the porpoises.
Vaquitas are found in the waters of the Gulf of California, but according to recent surveys of the area, their population is down to an estimated 30, making them the most endangered marine mammal.
Numbers of the vaquita population are dwindling due to the gillnet fishing in the area. This gillnet fishing is largely being used to catch fish, shrimp, and the totoaba– another endangered species found in the Gulf of California that is fished for their illegally-traded swim bladders that are highly coveted in China for medicinal purposes. In this process, the vaquitas are caught as bycatch and drown.
However, these legal measures have not been enough to stop the illegal trade of the totoaba and by extension gillnetting activity, which is why international biologists and marine experts from around the world– Mexico, the United States, Denmark, Holland and New Zealand formed the Consortium for Vaquita Conservation, Protection, and Rescue, or VaquitaCPR, to create a last-resort plan to save the species.
With no other viable options, the team’s plan is to capture and move vaquitas,“house vaquitas in a temporary sanctuary in the Gulf of California, with the ultimate goal of returning the animals to a gillnet- free environment.”
With this plan, small ships with the team’s experts are attempting to search for and catch live vaquitas, being led by U.S Navy dolphins utilizing echolocation. They will move then move them to safety in “large tent housing pools filled with filtered seawater and air,” where they will also be part of a breeding program.
Most recently, the team reported that they caught a live vaquita for the first time this Wednesday on Oct. 18. Although they released it as it was showing signs of stress, this step forward has shown that CPRVaquita’s plan for capture and temporary sanctuary has the potential for success in saving the vaquita.
Regardless of the outcome of this plan, it is imperative that this be a learning moment regarding the factors that led to the critical status of the vaquita. Frances Gulland, senior scientist with the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito and a member of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission concludes that “there is still going to be the problem of how to fish sustainably, [and] how not to have this massive, illegal sunken fishery that kills everything.”