The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is the world’s most endangered marine mammal with ≈245 individuals remaining in 2008. This species of porpoise is endemic to the northern Gulf of California, Mexico, and has historically suffered population declines from unsustainable bycatch in gillnets. An illegal gillnet fishery for an endangered fish, the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), has recently resurged throughout the vaquita’s range. The secretive but lucrative wildlife trade with China for totoaba swim bladders has probably increased vaquita bycatch mortality, but by an unknown amount. Precise population monitoring by visual surveys is difficult because vaquitas are inherently hard to see and have now become so rare that sighting rates are very low. However, their echolocation clicks can be identified readily on specialized acoustic detectors. Acoustic detections on an array of 46 moored detectors indicate that vaquita acoustic activity declined by 80% between 2011 and 2015 in the central part of the species’ range. Statistical models estimate an annual rate of decline of 34% (95% Bayesian Credible Interval -48% to -21%). Based on preliminary acoustic monitoring results from 2011–2014 the Government of Mexico enacted and is enforcing an emergency 2-year ban of gillnets throughout the species’ range to prevent extinction, at a cost of $74 million USD to compensate fishers. Developing precise acoustic monitoring methods proved critical to exposing the severity of vaquitas’ decline and emphasizes the need for continual monitoring to effectively manage critically endangered species.