Illegal poaching in the Gulf of California pushing Vaquita to extinction.

Vaquita, photo taken under permit (Oficio No. DR/488/08) Credit: Paula Olson (NOAA Contractor)

Vaquita, photo taken under permit (Oficio No. DR/488/08) Credit: Paula Olson (NOAA Contractor)

The vaquita (Spanish for “little cow”) is not only the world’s smallest cetacean, but is also the most endangered marine species in the world and is about to vanish forever.  
In the past three years alone, 50% of the vaquita population has been lost, leaving only approximately 60 remaining individuals, according to a report presented by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) to Mexican government officials.  The group, which is made up of international scientists, projected that at this rate of loss, the vaquita will be extinct by 2022.

Vaquitas are under serious threat from accidental entanglement and drowning in gill nets used by fishermen targeting the totoaba, a large Mexican fish.  According to scientists, 1 in 5 vaquitas drown in gill nets used by illegal totoaba fishing operations.  Both the vaquita and the totoaba are listed on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species as Critically Endangered, and can only be found in the Gulf of California.  

Totoaba is targeted by fishermen for its highly sought-after swim bladder, otherwise known as a “maw”, which is considered a delicacy in China.  The swim bladders, which are often smuggled through the United States, can sell for over $10,000 USD a piece in Asia.

To help save the vaquita, the Mexican government implemented a two-year ban on gill-net fishing in marine protected areas beginning in May 2013.  The Mexican Navy overseas enforcement of the ban and local fishermen receive economic compensation for their income loss. Unfortunately, this hasn’t stopped gill-net fishing.  In March alone, three vaquitas died from entanglement in gill nets.  In the past year, enforcement officials seized 600 illegal gill nets and detained 77 people.  

In the CIRVA report, scientists call for more protection and warn that if Mexico does not permanently extend the gill net ban and strengthen efforts to combat illegal fishing, the vaquita will likely become extinct within the next five years.

“We are watching this precious native species disappear before our eyes,” said Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, chair of CIRVA and co-scientist of the recent vaquita surveying study.  

The vaquita and totoaba are not the only species disappearing before our eyes due to the impact of gill nets and wildlife crime.  The Indo-Pacific humpback dolphin and baiji dolphin face similar threats from incidental mortality in fishing gear. Indeed, the Baiji hasn’t been seen since 2002, and may already be extinct.  Furthermore, illegal wildlife trade is now estimated to be worth $20-150 billion USD a year, ranking it alongside the trafficking of drugs, people, and arms. In 2013, a staggering 50,000 African elephants were poached for their ivory.

However, there is hope. “It’s better to light one candle than curse the darkness.  I think that’s where movements are started,” said conservation photographer, Shawn Heinrichs, in the groundbreaking documentary Racing Extinction.  

Despite being on the brink of extinction, species such as the Greater Sage grouse have recovered thanks to dedicated governments, committed individuals, scientists, and various other stakeholders who take an active interest in ensuring the survival of our wildlife.

“At WWF we are convinced that it is still possible to save the vaquita, but this is clearly its last chance,” said Omar Vidal, the World Wildlife Fund’s (WWF’s) Mexico director.

If we do nothing, the vaquita and other species like the black rhino and pangolin will be only memories - reduced to pictures in children’s storybooks.  

Here’s how you can take action to save endangered species like the vaquita and totoaba that are threatened by wildlife crime: