The Vanishing Vaquita

The worlds smallest cetacean (reaching lengths of only 4-5 ft.) and limited to a small home range in Baja, California is in dire straits. The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is a notoriously shy and difficult to study therefore underwater acoustic technology has been utilised by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita to monitor their latest numbers. This study revealed their numbers have dwindled below 100 with an estimate 97 individuals of which only about 25 are reproductive females.

The Vaquita within their protected area. Photo: Paula Olson (NOAA Contractor) taken under permit (Oficio No. DR/488/08)

What is the cause of their decline?

Illegal gillnets fisheries put this species as risk of by-catch and with there numbers so small even the loss of one individuals has detrimental effects on the population as a whole.

The totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), a marine fish also indigenous to the region, is the target of the gillnet fisheries. At up to 6 feet in length they are a smilier size to the vaquita. The totoaba is a valued catch as its swim bladder is highly prized in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), meaning that an individual catch can go for thousands of dollars. The high price it fetches at market means that regulations to ban commercials gill net fisheries in key vaquita habitat have been compromised. I think this quote from Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho (Coordinator of Marine Mammal Research and Conservation at the National Institute of Ecology, in Ensenda, Baja California, Mexico) really hits the nail on the head in regards to why fishers are finding it hard to resist fishing for totoaba:

“It’s like trying to control traffic while someone’s throwing money from the Empire State Building,”

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