The vaquita—a species of porpoise only found in the Northern Gulf of California—is in serious trouble. According to a May 9 press release from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), “There are fewer than 30 vaquita left in the wild.”
The cute, dolphin lookalike has the unenviable distinction of being the most endangered marine mammal today. The vaquita population has suffered precipitous drops over the past two decades, from over 500 in 1997 to just 60 this time last year (still more than twice the current number).
The primary culprit for the vaquita’s plight is Mexico’s illegal fishing industry and the practices it employs, notably gillnetting. Gillnets are mesh nets that are dropped perpendicularly to the surface of the water. While vaquita are not gillnets’ intended targets, the animals frequently die after getting tangled in them.
In 2015, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto enacted a temporary two-year ban on gillnet usage in areas where vaquita are known to live. This ban expires on May 31, 2017, and the World Wildlife Fund is clear in its call to action if there is any hope to save the vaquita: The ban “must be made permanent.”
In the WWF press release, Sara Thomas, the organization’s Director of Activism and Outreach, lists two additional demands of President Peña Nieto: “Increase enforcement of illegal fishing in the [Northern Gulf of California],” and “Crack down on illegally caught fish sent from Mexico, through the U.S., to China.”
Even if these urgently needed steps are taken, the vaquita’s future is still very much in jeopardy. Thomas ends the press release with a quote from Leigh Henry, a marine species conservation expert at the WFF: ““It breaks my heart. Wildlife conservation can be a tough job. What’s so devastating about the vaquita is that it could go extinct with the majority of the world having no idea this beautiful animal even existed. But I refuse to give up hope. We’ll fight on.”
To lend your voice in support of the WWF’s advocacy for the vaquita, visit their website here.
Feature Image: The vaquita is a critically endangered porpoise species endemic to the northern part of the Gulf of California. It is considered the smallest and most endangered cetacean in the world. By Paula Olson, NOAA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.