Thirty. That is how many vaquitas are left on Earth. The world’s rarest porpoise is down to just a few handfuls of survivors. This fact brings to mind the depressing thought of when do scientists finally call it quits on trying to bring an animal back from the brink of extinction? When do they decide that there is simply nothing left that they can try, that an animal is just not going to make it? While it is not a thought that conservationist’s and animal activists like to think about it is one that they sometimes have to consider. It just so happens that many scientists are thinking about this in terms of the vaquita.
One step that has been taken to try to save the vaquita is a proven method in the field of conservation, capturing animals of threatened species for captive breeding. The creation of a captive bred population can be used for re-introduction that can help buoy the numbers of the endangered species. In October of 2017 researchers went out into the gulf of California to try to capture some vaquitas, it did not end well. The team caught one vaquita and transferred it to a sea pen but it subsequently died, a devastating loss that the population could not stand to lose. The program to capture vaquitas for captive breeding was suspended.
One idea that the Mexican government is currently considering is to identify the remaining vaquitas left and give them all names. The government thinks that by identifying them with their own names and personalities might help to get more people to care about the plight of this extremely threatened animal. The main reason the vaquita has taken such a nosedive in terms of the numbers of its population has to do with fishing practices in the waters it calls home. The vaquita only lives in the northern part of the Gulf of California, because it has such a small home range this makes it even more vulnerable to threats to its habitat. Fishermen in the gulf often use gillnets to capture large amounts of fish but vaquitas often end up as bycatch. The fishermen are not after the vaquita, they are after a much more valuable fish called the totoaba. The bladders of the totoaba can fetch thousands of dollars in Asian countries. The thought of making a yearly wage off one fish’s bladder is too much for the impoverished fishermen so they will do anything to catch the totoaba even though fishing in the vaquitas habitat as well as using gill nets has been banned by the Mexican government.
Because it is the illegal totoaba trade that is causing so many deaths of vaquitas CITES has decided that the best way to save the vaquita is to crush the poaching of totoaba. CITES told Mexico, the United States and China to work together to stop the trade in the fish. Mexico is where the fish is hunted, it is then laundered through the ports of the U.S. where the majority of it is sent to China. CITES believes that crushing this triangle trade will ultimately save the vaquita because the fishermen in Mexico do not care about respecting the bans on fishing in the gulf when they can make thousands of dollars by catching one totoaba. If a few porpoises die in their nets then so be it, to them it is worth it. Getting the three countries more actively involved will help stop the supply and the demand of totoaba and will eventually lead to the Gulf of California being free of threats to the vaquita.
Vaquita, which is Spanish for “little cow” are small shy animals. They are four to five feet long and weigh only up to a hundred and twenty pounds. They are so shy and elusive that researchers have said that seeing one swimming usually only happens when the quality of the water is “mirror like.” Females only give birth to young once every other year, because of this slow breeding cycle they are unable to keep their numbers up. They use echolocation to help navigate their habitat, and they usually swim alone or in small groups. They also happen to be the only porpoise that lives in warm waters.
While the future for the vaquita does not look all that promising hopefully by crushing the totoaba trade the Gulf of California will soon become safer for the vaquita to call home and then we could possibly see the vaquita population rise.
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