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Vaquita - A Critically Endangered Species
The Vaquita is one of the most critically endangered species in the world (on the IUCN red list) with less than 200 of them existing now. They are the smallest species of porpoise in the world and are found only in the Northern Gulf of California. They were discovered only in 1958 when three skulls of these porpoises were found on the beaches near San Felipe.
P.S: Before I start, I would like to sat that I am sorry, I have not been able to add many pictures and videos for illustration purposes as very little information is available about this species at the moment(both graphical media and literature). I will be adding more later if I find more or as they become available.
The Other names for Vaquita are:
- Gulf of California harbour porpoise
- Gulf of California Porpoise
- Gulf Porpoise
- Vaquita marina
In Spanish, “Vaquita” means “little cow”
Scientific Classification (Taxonomy) of the Vaquita:
Species: Phocoena sinus
Abbreviations and explanation of terms used:
WWF – World Wildlife Fund
ESA – Endangered Species Act
IUCN – International Union for the Conservation of Nature
CITES – Convention on International Trade in the Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna
CIRVA – International Committee for the Recovery of Vaquita
MMPA – Marine Mammal Protection Act
NACAP – North American Conservation Action Plan
CEC – Commission for Environmental Cooperation
EDGE – Evolutionary Distinct and Globally Endangered
Sonar – Sound Navigation and Ranging
Bycatch – unwanted marine creatures that are caught in the nets while fishing for another species
Porpoise - one of several small gregarious cetacean mammals having a blunt nose and many teeth
Gregarious - tending to form a group with others of the same species
Cetacean - large aquatic carnivorous mammal with fin-like forelimbs no hind limbs
Clicks – sound / signals
Echolocation - determining the location of something by measuring the time it takes for an echo to return from it
Sonar - a measuring instrument that sends out an acoustic pulse in water and measures distances in terms of the time for the echo of the pulse to return
Characteristics and behaviour of the Vaquita:
- The Vaquita is a very rare species of porpoise and has dark ring around its eyes. There are dark patches on its lips, which form a line from the mouth to their pectoral fins.
- The dorsal surface of vaquita is dark grey, its sides are pale grey and the ventral surface is white with light grey marks.
- They grow up to a size of 1.2 to 1.5 m and weigh around 40 to 55 kg. Females are a bit bigger than the males.
- They have large flippers (pectoral fins) compared to other porpoises and a tall triangle shaped dorsal fin that is more falcate (curved).
- They have a smaller skull and a short and broad nose compared to other species.
- They have little or no beak with their upper jaw slightly protruded
- They have 16 to 22 pairs of sharp teeth in the upper jaw and 17 to 20 pairs in the lower jaw
- Due to their larger size, the females are distinguishable from the males.
- They rise to the surface of water to breathe. This is done by a forward rolling movement, without disturbing the surface of the water, after which they stay in water for long periods of time.
- They communicate and navigate using sonar and also produce high frequency clicks for echolocation.
- The vaquitas are solitary and are rarely seen in a group of two or three individuals. Sometimes a group of 8 to 10 have been observed while the largest being observed is 40
Habitat and food of the Vaquita:
- The vaquita are found in the shallow waters close to the shores along the northern parts of the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez).
- They live in shallow waters along the coasts, and sometimes in very shallow lagoons 6 m deep, so sometimes their back protrudes out of water.
- They are otherwise found in depths of 10 to 50 m and 10 to 25 km off the coast.
- They can be seen mostly in turbid (cloudy, not clear) waters due to the reason that they contain more nutrient contents and also attract small fish, cephalapods like octopus and squid, croakers, grunts and other crustaceans like crab which are food for the vaquita.
- They use echolocation to find locate their prey and also by sound given off by the movements of the prey. They feed on a variety of fish that live in shallow waters
- Their only natural predators are the sharks
Reproduction in Vaquita:
- Vaquitas mature when they are between 3 to 6 years old.
- The gestation period is 10 to 11 months and they give birth to a calf in the spring season. The calf is 0.7 to 0.8 m long and weighs around 7.5 kg.
- The newborn are dark in colour with a grey band running from the head to the dorsal flukes (Either of the two lobes of the tail of a cetacean). The colour lightens as they grow or mature.
- The young one is nursed for 6 to 8 months.
- They give birth once every two years and live up to approximately 21 years
Importance of the Vaquita:
- The vaquita live in a habitat in the Gulf of California which has a large marine ecosystem with high biodiversity.
- Vaquita form a small percentage of the diet for sharks and hence extinction of vaquita may have a negative effect on shark population
- Also, extinction of vaquita may lead to increase or even over population of the vaquita prey like squid, benthic fish and other crustaceans
Main threats and reasons why the Vaquita are critically endangered:
- The main threat for vaquitas is fisheries by-catch or entanglement in fishing equipment. They get caught in gillnets that are laid to capture the endangered fish (illegal) called totoaba (large sea bass), sharks, rays, scombrids and other fish and also in trawlnets laid to capture shrimps. They mostly die by drowning because they cannot get to surface to breathe.
Why are Vaquita Disappearing?
- The vaquita population of 567 in 1997 has declined tremendously to just around 150 in 2007 although they have not been hunted. It is believed that this number could be even lower now.
- The low population of vaquitas has led to a high possibility of inbreeding, which will affect the health of the species leading to decline in population. Further decline will also mean that there will be no contacts between individual male and female vaquitas which will lessen the rate of reproduction.
- Other threats include pollution and conversion of habitat by humans.
- The food supply of the vaquita depends on the level of water available in the vaquita habitat. Dams constructed across the Colarado river have decreased the flow and level of water thereby decreasing the amount of food available for the vaquita. This has led to issues with reproduction capabilities. The fresh water also contains pesticides and chemical fertilizers as its tributaries pass through the agricultural lands of Southern California and the Mexicali Valley, which will have a detrimental effect on the health and reproductive capacities of the vaquitas.
- Gillnet ban across the entire vaquita habitat will be the only possible solution to save the vaquita population and this will also help prevent other species in this habitat from bycatch and overfishing.
Conservation efforts taken to protect and conserve the Vaquita:
- WWF is working towards protective measures to help the vaquitas survive in their natural habitat, which is by eliminating the threats of bycatch.
- WWF also works with the local governments and fishermen in developing fishing equipment that will eliminate vaquita bycatch.
- WWF is conducting researches to find out the exact population size of vaquita.
- Mexico has created CIRVA that is working on conservation efforts, using the laws that will prevent the use of fishing nets in the vaquita’s habitat as the vaquita are endemic only to the Gulf of California.
- CIRVA estimated in the year 2000 that around 39 to as many as 84 vaquitas are killed each year because of drowning in gillnets and trawl nets and it is working in partnership with CITES, ESA and MMPA to nurse the vaquita population and bring them to a level where they can sustain themselves
- The government of Mexico established a nature reserve in 1993 called the Upper Gulf of California Biosphere Reserve, for protecting the vaquitas. It covers the upper part of the Gulf of California and the delta of the Colarado River, but CIRVA recommends the extension of this nature reserve to the entire vaquita habitat. This is not a very easy law to implement as this will affect the lives of so many people who depend on fishing in this region.
- The NACAP was launched by the U.S, Canada and Mexico under the jurisdiction of CEC to support the efforts of Mexico to protect, conserve and recover the vaquita population.
- The Mexican government is taking measures and establishing plans to provide alternative livelihood options for the fishermen and to enforce removal of the fishing nets.
- Plans to device new autonomous acoustic monitoring methods are in progress as the vaquita are rare and normal acoustic methods have failed to help with monitoring them.
- The Mexican government has also started a Vaquita Recovery Plan since 2007 to protect the Vaquitas
Facts about the Vaquita:
- The vaquitas are timid mammals and swim away if they see or sense a boat approaching and hence are very difficult to observe
- They are the only porpoise that live in the warm waters of the eastern Pacific Ocean and they tolerate temperature fluctuations from 20o C to 36o C.
- They are the most endangered cetaceans in the world that are distinct, with no close relatives and is on the top 100 list on EDGE
- They are a priority species for WWF, which means they are the most ecologically, economically and culturally important species
- If the bycatch issues continue, Vaquitas may become extinct by 2015, that is a short span of JUST TWO YEARS
- Vaquita do not survive in captivity
- Some people claim that the vaquita is just a mythical creature and not real.
- They swim and feed in a leisurely manner (they are cool :-) )
About the Vaquita
What can you do to help protect and conserve the Vaquita?
- You can help by donating to the Vaquita site “Vaquita – The Search for the Desert Porpoise”
- Please be careful of where the seafood that you eat are coming from and how they are caught
- You can adopt a Vaquita here
- You can spread the word about the importance and urgency in saving and protecting the vaquita
This is the first time, I have heard about the Vaquita and they are such beautiful and gentle creatures. We have less than 2 years to act on this issue. We may not be directly involved in anything related to the vaquita, but we can at least spread the word and stop these beautiful porpoise from going extinct.
Let us all remember, Extinction is Forever; Let us NOT let that happen!!!
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If you know more about this species, please feel free to share.