We must all dare to hope for the survival of the vaquita

Conservation news


Extinction alert for the vaquita issued – only 10 individuals remain

The International Whaling Commission has issued its first ever “extinction alert” for the tiny porpoise known as the vaquita, or “little cow” in Spanish. There have been concerns for a number of years about the endangered population, which is only found in the Gulf of California in Mexico. Efforts have been made to halt the decline but now may be too late. A recent study has suggested that the situation is far worse than anyone imagined - with perhaps only ten vaquitas left, concern has become a crisis.

Extinctions more commonly occur when a species is unsustainably hunted or its habitat is eroded. But in the case of the vaquita, its demise has come about almost by accident, or rather as the consequence of the unsustainable plundering of an entirely different species. For years, gillnets have filled the Gulf of California in search of totoaba, itself a now-endangered fish prized in Asia for its swim bladder which is used in traditional medicine and commands huge value in China and Hong Kong. Gillnets are flat, and suspended vertically in the water are treacherous for the vaquita who become entangled in them and drown. As the frantic demand for totoaba has risen, so numbers of vaquita have fallen - from 567 to just ten in the past decade.

Action has been taken - gillnets have been prohibited and the authorities have dumped huge concrete boulders on the seabed to prevent their ongoing deployment. Conservationists are optimistic that these efforts, although belated, may be working, but the concern is whether the tiny remaining population will be able to recover. A glimmer of hope came in the form of a sighting of a baby vaquita, or little, little cow, within the last year.

While an extinction alert won’t do anything to prick the consciences of the criminals who are still intent on tracking down totoaba, it may spur on the efforts of Mexican authorities and conservationists to redouble their efforts. We will need to place considerable faith in the governments and decision-makers globally to address the almost daily news shocks about record average sea temperatures and marine heatwaves, which themselves are becoming more common and frequent. The Guardian reported that sea temperatures off Florida in late July this year reached the almost inconceivable 38 degrees – that’s as hot as a hot tub and as warm as the recommended temperature for a baby’s bath.

Previous rises and falls in sea temperature have resulted in the decimation of marine wildlife much like wildfires take out huge areas of forest. The impact on cetaceans is likely to be displacement from their traditional areas of habitat, but this can only be effective if their food sources shift as well.

Photo credit: Tom Jefferson