Conservation & Science

A last-ditch effort to save the vaquita

Spotting a vaquita in the northern Gulf of California is a bit like glimpsing a snow leopard in the Himalayas. Some local fishermen told a reporter they’ve never seen a vaquita—and doubt they even exist.

One day soon, they might be right. But not if a coalition of experts, working with the Mexican government, can help it.

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Vaquita observers use binoculars capable of spotting vaquitas almost 2 miles away. Photo by NOAA Fisheries/Barbara Taylor

Barbara Taylor is one of the few people who’s seen a vaquita—hundreds of them, she says, in her 20 years doing population surveys. As a conservation biologist and a long-time member of the vaquita recovery team, Barbara has the training, and the powerful binoculars, to locate the small porpoises.

When vaquitas surface to breathe, they do it subtly and disappear quickly; and they tend to keep their distance from boats. “They are almost impossible to see from a little panga on the water,” she says.

But there’s another reason few people have encountered vaquitas: They’re the most highly endangered marine mammal species on Earth. These shy, small porpoises were only discovered in the 1950s. The population dropped from an estimated 567, when Barbara’s team first surveyed them in the late 1990s, to fewer than 60 last year. (UPDATE: According to a report published Feb. 1, the population is now estimated at only 30 individuals.)

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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.

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Collaboration for conservation in Baja California

In the coastal habitats of Baja California, life thrives on the edge of desert sands and sapphire seas. Our newest special exhibition, ¡Viva Baja! Life on the Edge, opened on March 19, featuring the incredible creatures and habitats of this narrow Mexican peninsula.

But we’re not just exhibiting the splendors of Baja’s rugged 800-mile coastline. We’re also taking a lead role, working with colleagues here and in Mexico, to safeguard it.

Close ties with Mexican researchers

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A male azure parrotfish hangs with tangs, sturgeons and a golden grouper off Cabo Pulmo. Photo by @underwaterpat

The Aquarium works with several universities in Baja—including El Centro Interdisciplinario de Ciencias Marinas (CICIMAR) and Centro de Investigación Científica y de Educación Superior de Ensenada (CICESE)—to study key marine species, such as white sharks and and mahi-mahi (also known as dorado).

“There’s been this growth in how we approach other countries and also meet our needs as an aquarium,” says John O’Sullivan, the Aquarium’s director of collections

We’ve been tagging juvenile white sharks in Southern California since 2002, documenting seasonal migrations of these young fish between coastal waters in the United States and those on Baja’s Pacific coast.

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We’re Saving Animals From Extinction

May 15 marks the 10th anniversary of Endangered Species Day. At the aquarium, we’ve worked every day for the past 30 years to save wildlife from extinction.

It’s the focus of many of our efforts – from our living exhibits, to the research we conduct here and in the wild, to our work to shape public policy in ways that protect ocean habitats and wildlife.

SAFE_logo_webSeafood Watch, too, contributes to wildlife protection by giving individuals and businesses tools so they can choose seafood that’s caught or farmed in ways that protect ocean ecosystems.

We’re not alone in our efforts. We’re part of a 229-member conservation organization – the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) – whose members are making a difference for wildlife around the world.

Collective action for conservation

Today, we’re stepping up in an even bigger way through a new initiative called AZA SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction. We’re combining the collective power of our 180 million annual visitors with our resources and expertise to save animals from extinction.

For decades, we and our AZA colleagues have been conservation leaders so the world will preserve its incredible wildlife. At the aquarium, we’re actively working to understand and protect sea otters, sharks and bluefin tuna. We rescue and release wildlife including Western snowy plovers and stranded sea turtles. We’re working for the recovery of steelhead trout in California. And we raise corals that we share with other aquariums, to reduce the need to collect from the wild.

African penguin at Monterey Bay Aquarium
African penguin at Monterey Bay Aquarium

We’re the wildlife experts

Among conservation organizations, no one has more animals, scientists or access to the public than AZA-accredited aquariums and zoos. In addition to the visitors we reach, we have the largest group of life scientists working for species preservation. And we have the largest living wildlife collection – more than 75,000 animals representing over 6,000 species, including 1,000 endangered species.

Collectively, we spend $160 million each year on conservation projects and programs.

Through AZA SAFE, accredited aquariums and zoos will build on a legacy that began more than a century ago, when zoos brought the American bison back from the brink. In the future, we’ll do more. We’ll convene scientists and stakeholders globally to identify key factors threatening species, develop Conservation Action Plans and engage the public to help us make a difference. You can follow the latest developments via social media by using the hashtag #savingspecies.

White shark with tagsA 10-year plan for saving species

In 2015, SAFE will focus on 10 endangered species, adding an additional 10 species each year for the next decade. The inaugural 10 species include several you can see in Monterey: African blackfooted penguins, sharks, Western pond turtles and sea turtles. Our next special exhibition, featuring marine life of Baja and the Gulf of California, is home to the critically endangered vaquita porpoise – another species that SAFE will work to recover.

How can you help? Every time you visit, you support our work to save animals from extinction. Our members are our partners in everything we do to assure a future with healthy oceans and abundant ocean wildlife.

When you stay in touch, as a member and through our social media accounts, we’ll let you know when you can take action to make a difference. And we’ll celebrate our progress – because, with your help, we are making progress!

Learn more about our Conservation and Science programs

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