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Extinction Alert for Mexico’s Dolphin-Like Vaquita

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A silent war rages, resulting in an extinction alert for the dolphin-like vaquita, the world’s smallest porpoise. A prized delicacy in China has created a lucrative black market, leading to rampant illegal fishing controlled by organized crime.

Extinction alert for dolphin-like Vaquita
Vaquita image by VaquitaCPR

Key Points

  • The vaquita, the world’s most endangered marine mammal, faces threats from illegal fishing in the Sea of Cortez due to the high demand for the totoaba fish’s swim bladder in China.
  • The vaquita gets entangled in gillnets set for totoaba, leading to rapid decline. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) has issued an extinction alert for the vaquita.
  • The “Vaquita CPR” operation aimed to rescue the vaquita but faced threats from local communities and cartels. A captured vaquita named Esperanza died in human care.
  • CITES approved the trade of captive-bred totoaba, and the Mexican government lifted the fishing ban in the vaquita refuge.

The Cocaine of the Sea

Extinction alert for dolphin-like Vaquita
Totoaba image credit NOAA via Wikimedia

A few hours south of the US-Mexico border, in the waters of the Sea of Cortez, a war rages. The battle isn’t over territory or drugs but a fish, often referred to as the “cocaine of the sea.

This fish, the totoaba, has become the center of a multimillion-dollar black market business. The totoaba’s swim bladder, a delicacy in China believed to have medicinal properties, can fetch up to $5,000 each, making it more valuable than gold

The Unintended Consequences

Extinction alert for dolphin-like Vaquita
Image credit NOAA via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

The vaquita is an innocent bystander. Fishermen lay gillnets to catch totoaba fish which unintentionally entangles the vaquita. This is the primary cause of their rapid decline. Found only in the upper Gulf of California, the vaquita is now the world’s most endangered marine mammal. 

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) recently issued a dire warning about the vaquita’s situation, marking the institution’s first-ever extinction alert.

A Failed Rescue Mission

Extinction alert for dolphin-like Vaquita
Image credit NOAA via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain)

In a desperate bid to save the vaquita, marine experts from around the world launched the largest operation ever to rescue a marine mammal from extinction. Named “Vaquita CPR,” this mission aimed to capture, protect, and eventually release the vaquita back into safer waters. 

However, the mission faced numerous challenges, from threats by local communities to confrontations with armed cartels. 

Tragically, a captured female vaquita, named Esperanza (Hope), couldn’t adapt to human care and passed away, dealing a devastating blow to conservation efforts.

International Decisions with Dire Consequences

Recent decisions by international committees have further endangered the vaquita. The Committee on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) approved the farming and trade of captive-bred totoaba, potentially increasing the demand for wild-caught specimens. 

This decision, coupled with the Mexican government’s move to lift the fishing ban in the vaquita refuge, has made the situation even more precarious.

Vaquita Status in Numbers

Extinction alert for Vaquita
Image by Timmy via Wikimedia Commons

Conservation efforts have been ongoing for many years, but the vaquita population has continued to rapidly decline over the last 20 years resulting in an extinction alert.

  • The population decline since 2011 was estimated to be 98.6%.
  • The population was monitored from 2011 to 2018, and the estimated decline was extremely high, with a 48% decline in 2017 and a 47% decline in 2018. 
  • In 2018, it was estimated that there were fewer than 19 individuals left.

The Video

YouTube video

Hope on the Horizon?

Despite the grim outlook, there’s a sliver of hope. The Sea Shepherd, an environmental organization, continues its efforts to protect the vaquita. They’ve reported sightings of adult vaquitas and even a calf, a beacon of hope in these trying times. 

Earth League International, another organization, is targeting traffickers and working with law enforcement on both sides of the border to combat the illegal totoaba trade.

More About The Vaquita

Vaquita image by VaquitaCPR
Image credit VaquitaCPR

The vaquita, scientifically known as Phocoena sinus, is a rare species of porpoise. It is endemic to the northern part of the Gulf of California. The word “vaquita” is Spanish for “little cow”. 

This marine mammal is recognized by its distinctive dark rings around its eyes, patches on its lips, and a line that runs from its dorsal fin to its mouth. Its dorsal surface is dark gray, while its ventral surface is lighter, leading to its sides having a demarcated colouration.

The vaquita has a very restricted range, spanning only the northern part of the Gulf of California. The vaquita’s diet primarily consists of fish such as grunts and croakers, and it uses echolocation to hunt its prey.

The Bottomline of Extinction Alert for the Vaquita

The intertwined fates of the vaquita and the totoaba fish highlight the profound impact of global demand on local ecosystems

The totoaba’s swim bladder, a sought-after delicacy in China, has inadvertently placed the vaquita in peril, emphasizing the need for responsible consumption and awareness of the origins of our delicacies. 

As we navigate the complexities of global trade and culinary traditions, it’s imperative to prioritize conservation. By doing so, we not only protect endangered species like the vaquita but also ensure that future generations can appreciate the rich biodiversity of our oceans.

What are your thoughts on this extinction alert for the vaquita? We welcome your comments below.

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Friday 18th of August 2023

I can’t EVEN BELIEVE the Mexican Government is going to lift the fishing ban! So awful! I wish they had opened & heavily promoted ecotourism, instead of fishing, in this upper Gulf area years ago so that “threats from local communities” didn’t hamper the conservation mission. Me & others I’m sure would’ve visited the area to support Vaquita CPR & help raise awareness.

I recently read that as of 2023, only 11 Vaquitas remain. Very sad that this wonderful little porpoise will soon be gone forever & of course we really have no idea the impact this will have on the environment & food web there.