The next to die out

The rarest marine mammal is on the brink of extinction. The Vaquita, (Spanish for “little cow”) is endemic to the Gulf of California in Mexico and is the smallest living Cetacean today.

Vaquitas are about the size of small humans, topping out at about 5 feet long and 55 kgs. The dark bands around their eyes is a trademark characteristic of the species.

This porpoise species was first described in 1958 but it wasn’t well known until 1985. In about 35 years the species has seen a huge decline in the wild population. Their small range and mostly elusive and shy behaviour makes it hard to conduct studies.

The Vaquita has the smallest range of any living mammal, the shallow, warm and murky and turbid waters of the Sea of Cortez is their only home.

So how many Vaquitas are actually left?

The first vaquita survey done in 1997, estimated a population of 567 individuals. By 2007, their population dropped to 150 individuals. Population abundance as of 2018 was less than 19 individuals. Today, it is estimated that there are as few as 10 vaquitas alive.

What caused the sharp decline in their population?

Their primary threat is entanglement in fishing gear, including in nets set for the totoaba, a large and critically endangered fish, endemic to the Gulf. To protect the vaquitas, all gillnets are banned in the upper Gulf. However, they are widely used, even by fishermen with permits for halibut or prawns. Mesh size varies with the catch, and the most hazardous to the vaquita are gillnets with large mesh used for totoaba.

Totoaba swim bladders are illegally exported to Asia to make soup perceived to have medicinal properties (not scientifically proven). The demand for the bladders spiked around 2011. A single bladder can reportedly sell for between $2,500 and $10,000. The increased demand meant more vaquita-entangling nets in the water.

Marine mammals find it hard to escape from nets.
The Totoaba swim bladders are the “cocain of the sea” and the Vaquita are basically just by catch or “collateral damage”.

One could say that the Vaquitas are just in the wrong place at the wrong time for mere satisfaction. But truth is the greed for money has driven this innocent and harmless species to extinction. Vaquitas aren’t the first and they surely won’t be the last.

Image credits: Pinterest and Wikipedia

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