The vaquita is the smallest porpoise, and the smallest cetacean. It lives only in the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez), where fewer than 20 individuals remain. The original population in the 1930s was estimated to be around 5,000 individuals strong. In the 1990s, that number had declined to about 700. But in recent years, the population has declined at a dramatic rate. Between 2011 and 2016, the population has declined by 90%. The latest estimates based on acoustic and visual surveys point to only between 6 and 22 individuals surviving in 2018.

Gillnets and by-catch

The single most serious threat to the vaquita, and the cause for its rapid decline, is the use of gillnets in the vaquita habitat.

A gillnet is a wall of netting that hangs in the water column. The mesh is designed so that fish can get their heads through, but not the rest of their bodies. As they struggle to free themselves, they get entangled with their gills. Gillnets are very effective and used around the world, but often lead to large amounts of by-catch and pose a threat to other marine animals, such as sea turtles, seals and sea lions and cetaceans like the vaquita. If a vaquita gets entangled, it only has minutes to free itself. Most animals drown, and those that escape often do so with severe injuries.

The use of gillnets in the vaquita habitat is currently banned throughout the vaquita’s range. However, illegal fishing continues, targeting the totoaba for the Chinese market. The totoaba is a large species of fish which, like the vaquita, is listed on the IUCN Red List as “critically endangered”. This illegal fishing activity is quickly driving this species to extinction while also severely accelerating the decline of the vaquita as the animals get entangled as by-catch and drown.

The totoaba fish are highly sought after for their swim bladders, which in China are used for dubious medicinal purposes. The dried swim bladders are so valuable that they are referred to as the “cocaine of the sea” and command a price of up to $46,000 per kg on the Chinese black market. Because of the totoaba’s large size, nets designed to catch the fish have a mesh size that is also perfect to catch vaquita.

Other factors

Reduced flow of the Colorado River: The Colorado River feeds into the Sea of Cortez, and a reduced inflow of nutrients is indeed believed to have degraded the vaquita habitat. However, scientists found that nutrient concentrations are still well above limits at which primary productivity would be impacted, and the vaquita have enough fish to feed on.

Contamination due to pollution: Pollution was also believed to play a role. However, contamination levels in the Sea of Cortez are also well below levels where they would present a risk to the vaquita.

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