Vaquita porpoise is driven to extinct by mankind

Vaquita porpoise is driven to extinct by mankind

Ten years ago, China’s Baiji dolphins (Lipotes vexillifer) were recognized as a “critically endangered” species, becoming the first species of cetacean to be extinct. Ten years later, another cetacean species, the small Vaquita porpoise in the Gulf of California, is also about to follow the Baiji for the same reason.

Robert l. Pitman
Baiji dolphin in China (Photo credit: Robert l. Pitman)

The term “critically endangered” means that the species has been declined due to the destruction of its habitats and its population is so rare that it basically loses the ability to sustain reproduction or even the ability to survive in the natural state.

A dead Vaquita porpoise found in the Gulf of California
A dead Vaquita porpoise found in the Gulf of California (Photo source: independent.co.uk)

A dead vaquita porpoise (Phocoena sinus) also was found on the California peninsula of Mexico in April 2018. Its body was heavily scarred, and the net-like wound on its body showed that it was accidentally caught in the gill net of an illegal hunter and died ultimately.

How many Vaquita porpoises left in the world?

In 2017, four California Vaquita porpoises died. For this extremely endangered population, this number means that it is approaching extinction.

According to statistics from scientists, there are fewer than 30 Vaquita porpoises left in the Gulf of California in 2018.

The latest research done in collaboration with the Vertebrate Genome Project estimates there are 19 individuals left in the Gulf of California by 2020. If the situation continues to be bad, the Vaquita porpoises in the particular area will disappear forever in the next few years.

The Vaquita porpoise, also known as the porpoises in the Gulf of California. It is the smallest living cetacean in the world. They have black mouths and dark circles around their eyes. They are also called “little cow” in the sea.

A stranded Vaquita on the shore
A dead Vaquita on the shore (Photo credit – Latin American Post)

The Vaquita porpoise inhabits the northern part of the Gulf of California, Mexico, where it is an endemic species.


They are very shy by nature and will retreat and avoid any ships. Usually, after sight, it never reappears. They will not be seen until they are killed by fishing nets as bycatch or unintended catch species.

It didn’t take long for scientists to discover them. The bones of three porpoises in the Gulf of California were found on a beach, and this unique species was found as Vaquita.

However, the number of porpoises in the Gulf of California has dropped by 95% in the past 20 years.


In 1997, there were 567 Vaquita porpoises in the ocean in 2008, 245 in 2015, 59… Currently, about 19 porpoises were recorded.

Decline in Vaquita's population since 1997
Decline in Vaquita’s population since 1997 (Source: earthisland.org)

Step by step, they have become the most endangered cetaceans in the world. Scientists and marine animal protection personnel are extremely worried that perhaps next year they will disappear forever and become the second cetacean to be devasted by human pressure.

What made the Vaquita porpoise non-existing?

In the habitat of the Vaquita porpoise, there is a similarly critically endangered Totoaba fish (Totoaba macdonaldi).

Once, their numbers were abundant, but when illegal overfishing of them increased sharply, their population also declined.

Entangled Totoaba fish in gillnet
Totoaba fish entangled in gillnet

Totoaba has been illegally caught in large numbers, and it has a high demand.

Their swim bladder can be dried into the fish maw, a tonic with high nutritional value that is considered a traditional precious medicinal material.

Fish maw (dried swim bladder) can be sold in seafood shops in many places in Hong Kong and the China Mainland.

The dried fish maw of Yellow-lipped fish under China’s second-level protection has always been regarded as the most expensive and best fish maw.

However, since China banned the commercial fishing of yellow-lipped fish, Later Totoaba fish was used by smugglers as a substitute fish for the yellow-lipped fish because of its similar shape and scarcity to the yellow-lipped fish and the price of fish maw is also high.

Totoaba fish maw in the market
Totoaba fish maw in the market (Photo source: ecojust.eu)

The price of Totoaba fish maw in the market is very high, and some can even sell for about 15,000 US dollars per 1 kg.

Some people call it “aquatic cocaine”. Not only do people want to eat the nourishing body, some people think that buying fish maw is an investment, so they are eager for it.

Driven by such huge interests, fishermen can hardly resist such temptation. From 1993 to 2007, the number of fishing boats in the Gulf of California doubled, and fishermen threw gill nets and long nets to fish for Totoaba massively.

Although California has long banned the commercial fishing of Totoaba, the Totoaba fish in the Gulf of California eventually became an endangered species.

So what is the connection between Totoaba and the Vaquita porpoise?

Because they live in the same sea area, when fishermen use gillnets or long nets to catch Totoba fish, Vaquita dolphins will be accidentally injured.

The porpoise is easily entangled in the gillnet. Once caught in the gillnet, they are basically unable to get out and eventually die.

Scientists believe that this is the biggest cause of the extinction of Vaquita porpoises. They saw porpoises dying one after another under the gill net, and in the end, they were all dead bodies.

Protective measures

This is the double extinction of the Vaquita porpoise and the Totoaba fish, and the survival situation of the Vaquita porpoise is even more severe. Maybe next year, people will never see them again.

The alarm bell has already sounded, and countries are also working hard to protect the Vaquita porpoise.

In 2015, Mexico issued a two-year ban on drift gill nets in the waters where the Vaquita porpoise lives.

They also compensated the fishermen, hoping that they can switch to other methods of fishing and give up gill net fishing.

China also held a seminar in Guangzhou last year, inviting representatives of Mexico and the United States to participate, hoping to work together to curb the trade in Totoaba and combat illegal smuggling.

Some celebrities, including Leonardo DiCaprio, also called on everyone to take action to protect the porpoise in the Gulf of California.

Overview

Nevertheless, the phenomenon of Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) fishing is still serious, and the speed of people’s protection may not keep up with the extinction speed of the Vaquita porpoise.

In order to do their utmost to protect the Vaquita porpoises, Mexican animal protection personnel proposed an emergency plan to establish a “temporary refuge” before September 2018 to transfer the Vaquita porpoises for protection.

But the risks involved are also great. No one has ever tried this approach. I don’t know what happens to the Vaquita in the capture and transportation, or whether they are suitable for “captive breeding.”

(You can get an idea from our article on captive breeding- North Korea may have “dolphin troops”)

They can only do their best and fight hard. This may be the last expectation. This is a desperate rescue operation.

A stranded Vaquita porpoise body with scars
A stranded Vaquita porpoise body with scars (Photo source: San Carlos media hub)
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Reference

Morin, P.A., Archer, F.I., Avila, C.D., Balacco, J.R., Bukhman, Y.V., Chow, W., Fedrigo, O., Formenti, G., Fronczek, J.A., Fungtammasan, A. and Gulland, F.M., 2020. Reference genome and demographic history of the most endangered marine mammal, the vaquita. BioRxiv.

Photo source credit and disclaimer

All the photos of the article are from the Internet and I’m grateful to the original owners for the use of their pictures in this article. If you have any copyright issues, please contact us.

Rajitha Dissanayake

Researcher in the field of Marine Mammals and Bio-acoustic

I'm a master’s scholar in marine mammals and bio-acoustic laboratory, Institute of Deep-Sea Science and Engineering (IDSSE), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and focusing on the sustainable environmental application, conservation, and exploring all aspects of the ecology and behavior of marine mammals.

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