The Vaquita (Phocoena sinus)

By Katherine Meinhold

Interesting Facts

  • It has only been known to science since 1958.
  • Vaquita means “little cow” in Spanish.
  • Also known as HArbor Porpoises
  • At about 5 feet (1.5 m) long, it’s the smallest species of cetacean.
  • The vaquita lives only about a 4 hour drive from San Diego.
  • Unlike other porpoises, vaquitas give birth only every other year.
  • Newborns are born in the spring (March/April).
  • They live to be about 20-21 years old.
  • Vaquitas have never been held in aquaria.
  • It is one of the rarest and most-endangered species of marine mammal in the world.
  • Its fate is tied to that of the upper Gulf of California ecosystem.

Vaquita's Range

The Vaquita has an unusually limited range and can only be found along Mexico's Gulf of California.

It Looks Like...

Vaquitas have a large dark rings around their eyes and dark patches on their lips that make a thin line from the mouth to the pectoral fins. Their dorsal surface is dark gray, sides pale gray and ventral surface white with long, light gray markings.

Newborns have darker coloration and a wide gray fringe of color that runs from the head to the dorsal flukes, passing through the dorsal and pectoral fins

What is it's Niche?

One of the reasons Vaquitas are so rarely heard about is because they do not serve an extremely important purpose in their environment. They eat squid, croakers, fish and crabs among other things and it is suspected that they are eaten by different kinds of sharks but it cannot be proven. The main threat to their lives are humans
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Why are the Vaquita endangered?

There are multiple reasons why the Vaquita are endangered, the main one is fishing by catch. However, there are many secondary reasons, among them are:

  • Habitat loss and degradation- their habitat has been drastically changed by damming of the Colorado River, coastal development is growing and this hurts the estuaries needed for larvae because they build marinas there, trawl netting destroys the sea floor and its ecology
  • Pesticide pollution- tributaries emptying into the Colorado River run through the agricultural areas of Southern California and Mexicali valley
Potentially there are natural factors which effect the Vaquita population; white sharks, Mako, Blacktips as well as other shark species have been found with Vaquita parts inside their stomachs. Some Vaquita tangled in nets showed scars on their flukes from teeth that could be shark or killer whale, and there have been sightings of killer whales and also of other species of sharks, like the tiger shark, scalloped hammerhead sharks and bull shark, among others. Despite this there have been no direct reports of attacks on Vaquita by these species of sharks or by killer whales.

How did the Vaquita become critically endangered?

One of the things that make the Vaquita special is that they live only off of the Gulf of California in Mexico. This fact along with the number that are caught in fishing nets, their low birth rates, the coastal developments hurting the estuaries they use to raise their young, and habitat loss in general keeps their numbers down. If fishing by catch isn't stopped immediately the Vaquita will be extinct by the year 2018.

How can we help?

There are multiple things that we can do:

  • Be a responsible consumer- in the Gulf there are no fisheries certified as sustainable, and until that happens we can buy fish and shrimp directly from cooperatives that actively participate in Vaquita conservation efforts. This creates an incentive to stay involved by helping local micro economies thrive. While the region is best known for its shrimp fishery, fishermen engage in a wide array of fisheries that provide great quality products that are harvested responsibly.
  • Support groups working in the area- there are a lot of groups working in the field and everyone could use your help. You can get involved by volunteering or doing internships with NGOs. If you can’t go to the Upper Gulf, there are other ways to get involved. Providing economic support to any of the groups involved is always helpful, as is signing petitions and spreading the word about the issues.
  • Support local economies- Many fishermen are retiring from fishing and starting new businesses and it is important to support them in their new endeavors. If you travel to the area try to support the businesses. For a list of some of the new businesses in the region you can visit CEDO’s web page, or simply ask around and people will point in the right direction. Remember that the more support these communities receive, the better chance we have of keeping the waters gillnet free.
  • Ask questions and spread the word- Word of mouth really does work, and there are people talking about it, you just have to find them. Good Luck!