Conservation & Science

Working together to save the vaquita

Update 7/21/16: Mexican authorities have adopted new rules making the gillnet ban permanent in the upper Gulf of California, and improving the ability for officials to enforce the ban. The changes—encouraged by advocates including the Association of Zoos and Aquariums—offer new hope for vaquitas’ recovery in the wild.

Pop quiz: What’s the world’s rarest marine mammal?

San Felipe mural
A mural in San Felipe, Mexico, celebrates vaquitas. There is very little documentation of vaquitas in the wild; most images of live vaquitas are artist renderings. Photo by Sean Bogle

Answer: It’s a small, shy porpoise called the vaquita (va-KEE-tah). Vaquitas live only in a small part of the northern Gulf of California, bordering Baja California and the Mexican mainland. The dark markings around their mouths and eyes give them a unique look, and have led to their nickname, “panda of the sea.”

They’re also critically endangered. A May 2016 survey estimates fewer than 60 are left.

Populations of elephant seals and gray whales, which once faced extinction in this same region, have recovered thanks to transnational cooperation. There’s hope for vaquitas, too.

In observance of International Save the Vaquita Day, July 9, aquariums and zoos across the United States are raising their voices for strong and immediate conservation action on behalf of the vaquita. You can help when you join the Monterey Bay Aquarium and sign the petition to protect them from fishing practices that threaten their survival.

The greatest threat to vaquitas is the use of drift gillnets within their small range. Gillnets are used in the upper Gulf of California to fish for shrimp, which was temporarily banned in April 2015; for corvina, which is still legal; and for an endangered fish called totoaba, which is illegal. Gillnets can accidentally catch vaquitas, killing them.

Vaquita necropsy_2
This vaquita was killed when it was accidentally caught in a gillnet. Photo by Gustavo Cardenas

In April 2015, the Mexican government passed a two-year ban on gillnet and longline fishing in the vaquitas’ range (with an exception for corvina fishing). It’s a bold and encouraging move to protect the dwindling population of these amazing marine mammals.

But more must be done. In May 2016, the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita found that extinction of the vaquita is imminent unless immediate action is taken. Their top two recommendations are to make the gillnet ban permanent and to strengthen enforcement against illegal totoaba gillnet fishing.

Monterey Bay Aquarium supports these actions, and we’re taking steps to advance them, in part by supporting a permanent gillnet ban in the vaquitas’ range.

As a part of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ Saving Animals from Extinction (SAFE) program, we’re helping develop and implement conservation action plans for 10 species—including vaquitas.

These plush vaquitas were produced as part of an effort supporting International Save the Vaquita Day. The 60 shown here represent the number remaining in the wild. Photo by Jen Gabler

While a permanent gillnet ban is an important step, illegal totoaba poaching continues to threaten vaquitas’ survival. Totoaba swim bladders are valuable commodities in China and can fetch up to $10,000 each on the black market. They are used in a soup called fish maw that is believed to have medicinal value.

Government agencies and environmental organizations are working with fishermen in the Gulf of California to develop alternative fishing gear that would minimize the killing of vaquitas as bycatch, while still allowing fishermen to make a living. Increased funding and government support is needed to test these new types of gear, and to put them into place when ready.

Please sign the AZA petition to protect vaquitas at—and help spread the word.

Featured image: Vaquitas’ shy nature makes it a challenge to learn about the vanishing species. Photo by T. A. Jefferson/VIVA Vaquita

One thought on “Working together to save the vaquita”

  1. Hopefully efforts to help the Vaquita will be successful like the Sea Otters have been in California and Canada. People have to got to have responsible fishing processes in place and stop overfishing. I’m happy to see that the Monterey Bay Aquarium is involved in helping the conservation process.


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