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Vaquita

Facts

  • Status
    Critically Endangered
  • Population
    30 individuals
  • Scientific Name
    Phocoena sinus
  • Height
    Up to 5 feet
  • Weight
    Up to 120 pounds
  • Habitats
    Marine (only in the northern Gulf of California)

Map data provided by IUCN.

Vaquita, the world’s most rare marine mammal, is on the edge of extinction. This little porpoise wasn't discovered until 1958 and a little over half a century later, we are on the brink of losing them forever. Vaquita are often caught and drowned in gillnets used by illegal fishing operations in marine protected areas within Mexico's Gulf of California. The population has dropped drastically in the last few years.

The vaquita has a large dark ring around its eyes and dark patches on its lips that form a thin line from the mouth to the pectoral fins. Its dorsal surface is dark gray, sides pale gray and ventral surface white with long, light gray markings. Newborn vaquita have darker coloration and a wide gray fringe of color that runs from the head to the dorsal flukes, passing through the dorsal and pectoral fins. They are most often found close to shore in the Gulf's shallow waters, although they quickly swim away if a boat approaches.

 

Saving vaquita: Retrieving ghost nets as dramatic new operation gets underway

In the Upper Gulf of California, scientists and fishermen work to protect the habitat of the world's smallest porpoise.

Fisher pulling net from Gulf of Mexico

Why They Matter

  • The vaquita is the most endangered cetacean in the world. With as few as 30 left, the species will become extinct without a fully enforced gillnet ban throughout their entire range. WWF urgently working to ensure they can live and thrive in their natural habitat.

Threats

  • Population 30 individuals
  • Extinction Risk Critically Endangered
    1. EX
      Extinct

      No reasonable doubt that the last individual has died

    2. EW
      Extinct in the Wild

      Known only to survive in cultivation, in captivity or as a naturalised population

    3. CR
      Critically Endangered

      Facing an extremely high risk of extinction in the Wild

    4. EN
      Endangered

      Facing a high risk of extinction in the Wild

    5. VU
      Vulnerable

      Facing a high risk of extinction in the Wild

    6. NT
      Near Threatened

      Likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future

    7. LC
      Least Concern

      Does not qualify for Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable, or Near Threatened

fishing boat

A fishing boat in the Gulf of California.

The vaquita will be extinct, possibly by 2018, if fishery bycatch is not eliminated immediately. Nearly one out of every five vaquita get entangled and drown in gillnets intended for other marine species like the totoaba, a critically endangered fish also found in the upper Gulf of California. Entanglement in gillnets set for totoaba was the primary cause that brought the vaquita to low levels by the mid-1970s. Totoaba were overfished by the mid-1970s and were listed as endangered by Mexico in 1975, and by the US in 1979.

Today, international trade in totoaba is banned under CITES but high demand from China for its swim bladder has led to a corresponding boom in illegal totoaba fishing in the past few years. Thousands of swim bladders are dried and smuggled out of Mexico, often through the United States. Fishermen receive around $4,000 for each pound of totoaba swim bladder, equivalent to half a year’s income from legal fishing activities. It is this illegal trade that is currently driving the precipitous decline in vaquita numbers.

What WWF Is Doing

Vaquita conservation, protection and recovery

Vaquita CPR (Conservation, Protection, Recovery) is a plan led by the Mexican government and developed by key marine mammal experts around the world to locate, rescue and care for vaquitas in a safe haven, to be located in the Northern Gulf of California, with the ultimate goal to return them to a gillnet-free environment.

Although this initiative faces a lot of uncertainty and is highly risky, WWF supports this effort as a bold and necessary action to save the species from extinction and, ultimately, facilitate its recovery. 

In support of CPR’s ultimate goal of returning vaquita to the wild, and in support of those vaquita remaining in the wild, WWF will maintain our focus on protecting the species' native habitat. This involves close collaboration with our partners to support:

  • The retrieval of lost or abandoned “ghost” gill nets, many of them illegal, which continue to entangle and kill vaquitas and other marine species, and providing technology to improve and increase effectiveness of current retrieval methods. From October 2016 to July 2017 alone, this initiative retrieved a total of 432 nets from vaquita habitat and we will continue to search for more, given continued illegal fishing.
  • WWF has long collaborated on acoustic monitoring, to help estimate the vaquita population. WWF will continue to support acoustic monitoring of the population, as it provides crucial information for the design and implementation of effective conservation measures.

By working with key stakeholders, global experts, government partners, and local communities, WWF will succeed in our efforts to achieve a gill-net free Upper Gulf of California where wild vaquita can thrive.

International cooperation to boost vaquita-safe fishing

In July 2016, President Barack Obama and President Enrique Peña Nieto of Mexico announced billateral collaboration measures to protect the vaquita. As a follow up to this meeting and to the recommendations CIRVA presented in its vaquita report, Mexico's National Institute of Fisheries (INAPESCA) and WWF Mexico established an international committee of experts to further develop and urgently implement vaquita-safe fishing technologies.

The experts committee will advise the Mexican government on improving fishing techniques not harmful to vaquita, including those that INAPESCA and WWF Mexico have together developed over the last years.

This independent committee has been charged with improving existing vaquita-safe fishing technologies (such as the small trawl to catch shrimp and traps and other gear for fish) to substitute gillnets which will be permanently prohibited starting September in the Upper Gulf of California, the only place on Earth where the vaquita exists.

The committee is comprised of experts from Texas A&M University, NOAA South East Fisheries Center, Swedish University of Agriculture Science, Technological University of Denmark, Canada's Fisheries and Marine Institute, New England Aquarium, FAO, INAPESCA and WWF.

A protocol and guidelines to catch shrimp with vaquita-safe technology is expected to be ready soon. 

Saving the Last of the Vaquitas

Fin

WWF is on red alert after the most recent report from the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) estimated the vaquita population at no more than 30. In the past, WWF has helped study vaquitas and implement protective measures with the Mexican government and local partners. We have been working with Mexican scientists, government representatives, and other partners and collaborators to develop a long-term strategy for conservation of the species.

We are now calling for urgent and immediate measures to save the last of the vaquitas.

Based on expert recommendations, WWF calls on the Mexican government to strongly enforce a ban on gillnet fisheries throughout the entire range of the species starting in September 2014. We also ask that the US and China help stamp out the illegal trade in totoaba products and provide enforcement support to the Mexican government, without which vaquitas will go the way of the dodo.

 

All vaquita photos on this page by Thomas A. Jefferson from the joint research project with the Marine Mammals Research and Conservation Coordination of the National Institute of Ecology of Mexico. Photo obtained under permit No. DR7488708 of SEMARNAT (Mexican National Commission of Protected Natural Areas).

Experts

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