By ALLAN WALL
The vaquita, an aquatic mammal which only exists in one small area of Mexico, is now on the brink of extinction.
Can it still be saved, or is it too late?
The vaquita, Spanish for “little cow,” is a type of porpoise endemic to Mexico. It’s the smallest and rarest type of porpoise, with the scientific name Phocoena sinus.
One curious thing about the vaquita is that the female of the species is larger than the male, rare for mammals. The male is typically 53.1 inches long, while the female is about 55.4 inches long.
Not only is the vaquita endemic to Mexico, it is endemic to only one area of Mexico, the lagoons of the Colorado River delta, on the shoreline of the upper Sea of Cortes, also called the Gulf of California or the Vermilion Sea. This body of water, between the Baja California Peninsula and the Mexican mainland, is thought to be one of the most biologically diverse seas in the world.
The vaquita has only been known to science since the 1950s, and its population has been dropping precipitously for years.
According to marine biologists, there were about 567 vaquitas in 1997. Ten years later, that number had dropped to just 150, and by 2015, there were just 50 vaquitas surviving.
In 2016, there were only 30 vaquitas left, and in 2018, there were fewer than 19.
As of February 2022, the estimate is that there were fewer than 10 vaquitas remaining, maybe just seven or eight.
That is truly disastrous.
The main cause of death of vaquitas is getting entangled in fishing nets. As a mammal, the animal needs oxygen and can’t stay under water indefinitely. If it’s trapped underwater by the net, it eventually dies.
Many of these vaquita-killing nets are employed by poachers catching the totoaba fish in Mexican waters. This large fish is also endemic to the Gulf of California and is itself a vulnerable species.
Fishing of the totoaba has been illegal in Mexico since 1975, but that certainly hasn’t stopped the poachers.
The swim bladders of the totoaba are in high demand in China and other parts of Asia, driving an illegal but thriving lucrative totoaba trade. This involves poachers, smugglers and Mexican drug cartels. (Totoaba have been called the “cocaine of the sea”).
The vaquita has a slow reproductive cycle. It reaches reproductive maturity somewhere between three and six years of age. The gestation period is 10 or 11 months long. Vaquita calves are nursed for approximately 6 to 8 months. The time between births for a mother vaquita ranges from one to two years.
That means vaquitas do not reproduce very quickly, even under ideal circumstances.
And if they keep getting caught in the totoaba nets, that makes it even more impossible for them to survive.
Now the vaquita is on the brink of complete extinction.
There have been animals in the past that nearly went extinct, but which survived and thrived. Two notable examples are the bison and the blue whale. But both these animals had much wider ranges than the vaquita.
If, as it is thought, there are fewer than 10 vaquitas left, it looks very grim for their future, given the animal’s slow reproductive cycle and limited range. The vaquita species needs some extremely effective protection in order for it to avoid extinction.
Given the Mexican government’s seeming indifference to the vaquita’s plight, the local human population cannot be ignored and could be part of the solution. An outside-the-box solution is needed to protect the vaquita, the totoaba and local fishing livelihoods.
But any effort to save the last remaining vaquitas needs to start quickly, or it will be too late for the vaquita.
And that would be a tragedy.