The vaquita marina (Phocoena sinus), also known as the Gulf of California porpoise. The vaquita is the smallest and rarest cetacean (whale, dolphin, or porpoise) in the world, and it’s only found in the northern Gulf of California in Mexico.
The vaquita is critically endangered, with fewer than 10 individuals left in the wild as of 2021. The main threat to the species is accidental entanglement in gillnets used by illegal fishing operations in the vaquita’s habitat. The vaquita is also threatened by pollution and habitat loss.
The vaquita marina is a small porpoise that measures about 1.5 meters (5 feet) in length and weighs around 55 kilograms (120 pounds). It has a distinctive black ring around its eyes and dark patches on its lips that make it look like it’s smiling. The vaquita is a shy and elusive animal that’s difficult to spot in the wild.
It is endemic to the upper Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez, which is a narrow and shallow body of water between the Baja California peninsula and the mainland of Mexico. The vaquita inhabits the shallow coastal waters of the northern Gulf, where it feeds on a variety of fish, squid, and crustaceans.
The main threat to the vaquita’s survival is entanglement in gillnets, which are large fishing nets that are suspended vertically in the water and trap fish by their gills. Gillnets are used illegally by fishermen in the vaquita’s habitat to catch totoaba, a large fish that’s highly valued for its swim bladder in the Chinese market. The totoaba is also an endangered species, and its trade is banned under international law, but the demand for its swim bladder remains high.
Conservation efforts to protect the vaquita have been ongoing since the 1990s, but the population has declined sharply in recent years. In 2019, a survey estimated that there were fewer than 19 vaquitas left in the wild, down from about 30 in 2017. In 2021, another survey estimated that the population had declined to fewer than 10 individuals. The Mexican government has implemented a range of measures to protect the vaquita, including a ban on gillnets in the vaquita’s habitat and compensation for fishermen who switch to alternative fishing methods. However, the illegal fishing continues, and the vaquita’s future remains uncertain.