Listed as endangered in 1990 and later critically endangered in 1996, the vaquita porpoise is the rarest and least known of all cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoise). Only found at the northernmost end of the Gulf of California the vaquita has a home range so small that it inspired the porpoise’s scientific name, “phocoena sinus” or “pocket porpoise”, referring to the small pocket that is its home range. Discovered only by skeletal remains in 1958, it was not until 1985 that the scientific community was able to confirm what the elusive porpoise actually looked like and entered its description into scientific records. The smallest of all cetaceans, the vaquita measures just 4-5 feet long when fully grown. The lips and skin around the eyes of the porpoise are darkened, giving it unmistakable facial markings. In 2008 a population study found that only 250 individuals remained, and that a 5-15% decline in population was expected to continue per year. In recent years species protection and conservation measures have been implemented to save the porpoise, but there have been no recent population studies to indicate whether they have been successful.
The decline of the vaquita porpoise began in the 1940s when fishermen started using gill nets to fish for a species of sea bass known as totoaba. The large gill nets used to catch the fish also incidentally trapped and drowned vaquitas. The totoaba was fished with increased intensity over the years, decimating the population of both the porpoise and the sea bass. The unregulated fishing eventually landed both the vaquita and totoaba on the endangered species list. Though fishing for totoaba has since been banned in the region, gill netting for other fish species has continued along with shrimp netting, which continue to endanger the vaquita.
Though the vaquita porpoise has not received world-wide fame like some endangered animals, there is work being done to save the species. An international conservation organization known as CIRVA, or the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, has been working with the Mexican government to protect the species from extinction. In 1997 the organization recommended that gill netting be eliminated within the vaquita’s home range, specifically large-sized gillnets. In 2005, working with CIRVA, the government of Mexico established a bio-reserve to save both the vaquita porpoise and the totoaba. The bio-reserve is known as the “vaquita refuge” since it prohibits gill net fishing within a large portion of the porpoise’s home range. It is hoped that CIRVA’s species protection efforts will stop the decline of the porpoise’s population. However, due to vaquita sightings outside the refuge, scientists worry the bio-reserve is not large enough to provide sufficient protection. As well, conservationists are concerned that fishing regulations are not being adequately enforced.