The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) Is the world’s smallest and most endangered cetacean alive today with current figures estimating less than 30 individual vaquita remaining. The vaquita can grow up to a maximum length of 5ft and can weigh up to 120 lbs with the females being larger than males. They are easily identifiable by the black marks around their eyes and mouth. They are carnivorous and live in murky waters, as a result of this environment they use echolocation, much like dolphins, to find prey.
Vaquita live in a relatively small <3000 km section within the northern part of the Gulf of California, a habitat that is shared with the totoaba fish (Totoaba macdonaldi), and suffers greatly from the threat of being caught as bycatch from the illegal totoaba poachers. The totoaba are highly sought after as their swim bladder holds an extremely high value of up to £12,000 on China’s health food black markets, they are caught using gill nets which often end up capturing other species, these accidentally caught species are called bycatch and are often thrown overboard injured or dead as they are unwanted, despite the fact that totoaba themselves are illegal to catch and despite the many measures put in place by the Mexican government and the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society to limit gillnet fishing in this area illegal poaching still occurs and is the leading cause in the decline of vaquita. In 2017 there were plans in place to capture the remaining vaquita and bring them into captivity as an attempt to delay or stop the decline of this wonderful species with the end goal being to bring this species back from the brink of extinction within captivity. However as of November 2017 those plans were abandoned after the 60 strong team of scientists and divers experienced problems. The first vaquita that was caught had to be released when it began to display dangerous signs of stress and the second died just a few hours after capture, this lead to the decision being made to suspend any further attempts of capture as it was proving to be too risky. “This is a very, very serious setback,” said project scientist Barbara Taylor, of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Taking vaquitas into human care was always an extreme measure, but it was virtually our only option. Now even that has gone. The vaquita is now facing extinction unless illegal fishing can be curtailed.”
It appears that time may have run out for this species, illegal poaching has driven the numbers down, from over 500 two decades ago to less than 30 in 2017, I feel it is unlikely that the poachers will cease now as there is more money to be gained from the totoaba now than ever before. The current conservation methods are not effective enough to bring this species back from the brink of extinction and unless major ground is broken in the next few months we could well wake up to the headline before summer stating that the last vaquita has been reported dead and that the species as a whole has been declared extinct.