Five feet long
body, small dorsal fin, rounded beak-like mouth.
Say the word "whale" and people often think of huge ocean-dwellers like the blue whale or the humpback whale. These giants have a small cousin, a porpoise, who happens to be the rarest marine mammal in the world. The vaquita is the smallest cetacean on Earth. It is found exclusively in the Northern Gulf of California. It also is critically endangered-so critically in fact that less than thirty of them exist in the wild.
First discovered in 1958, the vaquita is an enigmatic animal. It's reclusive in the water and ascends to breathe so slowly that it hardly makes sound when it breaks the surface! As a result there is a lot about the vaquita that we just don't know. They often swim alone or in groups of two-to-three, though they have been seen in groups as large as eight-to-ten. They eat a variety of fish and sometimes squid. Like other cetaceans they communicate through echolocation, though it is thought that they hunt by detecting the echolocation of fish rather than emitting echolocation themselves. Little is known about their reproductive cycle, except that most newborns are born around March and the female's gestation period is thought to be ten-to-eleven months long. Some estimate the gestation period lasts as long as two years.
The vaquita is critically endangered. Their largest threat is illegal fishing. Vaquitas are often caught as bycatch in illegal gill nets and trawl nets and thus drown. Their habitat has also been altered due to the damming of the Colorado River, and sometimes they are targeted so their swim bladders can be sold on the black market. It is thought that they were plentiful in the early 20th century, until commercial fishing ramped up in the 1940s and 50s. In 2007 it was estimated that only 150 individuals existed in the wild. As of 2017, they are estimated to be less than thirty. There are some scientists who believe there may be only two or three left alive. If this continues, the vaquita could be extinct by the year 2018.
Since 1997, multiple campaigns have been launched to protect and revitalize the vaquita species. The World Wildlife Fund, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, the United States Government and the Mexican Government have all devoted resources and scientists to saving the vaquita. Illegal fishing in vaquita habitat has been reduced. Research has intensified. Celeberities such as Leonardo DiCaprio and Miley Cyrus have spread awareness of the vaquita's plight. Despite these efforts, the vaquita's numbers are dwindling. It is a terrible thing that humans are causing the extinction of a creature that we know next to nothing about.
But even in the darkest of dark times, there is always hope! Researchers are investigating the possibility of capturing the remaining vaquita population and breeding them in captivity. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto declared that Mexico will do everything possible for the porpoise, even if there is only one vaquita left. In the meantime, you can help by writing to your representatives. Ask for more research and demand harsher restrictions on illegal fishing. Also make certain that you do not purchase seafood unless it comes from sustainable sources. And NEVER purchase the body parts of any animal-they will not improve your health and it's not worth the novelty! Every action, no matter how small, will help.
To help the vaquita, check out these awesome websites:
Save the Vaquita-Dedicated
to preserving the vaquita, this organization is actively conducting
research, informing the public and investigating the possibility of
captive breeding programs.
Society, Vaquita page-Dedicated to protecting porpoises everywhere,
the Porpoise Conservation Society is helping to preserve the vaquita.
Vaquita page-Protecting the oceans since 1943, the Cousteau Society
is partnering with the Mexican government to preserve the vaquita.
Wildlife , Vaquita page-Information on the vaquita.
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