2023 Research finds more Vaquita Porpoises than expected in the Gulf of California
The vaquita porpoise, the world’s smallest and most endangered cetacean, is barely hanging on in the Gulf of California. A recent research expedition found between 10 and 13 vaquitas, which, despite the low number, is encouraging news for the species.
In 2017, there were an estimated 30 vaquitas left in the wild, showing a significant loss of their population. However, it is believed conservation efforts have helped to slow the decline.
According to an associated press report from a May 2023 research expedition, 10 to 13 vaquita were spotted by researchers in a corner of the gulf where a similar number of the cetaceans were last seen in 2021. The stable population number between 2021 and 2023 is an encouraging reversal of the declines seen in years previously.
“We estimated that the sightings included 1-2 calves and there was a 76 percent probability that the total number seen, including calves, was between 10 and 13 individuals,” reported the Sea Shepherd society leading vaquita conservation efforts. “Since the search was in a small portion of the vaquita’s historical range, 10-13 is considered a minimum estimate of the number of vaquitas left.”
Adult vaquitas porpoises grow to about 1.5m long and weigh about 50kg. They live around 2 decades and females give birth to a single 6kg calf every other year, according to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Despite the slowing rate of population loss, the vaquita porpoise remains critically endangered. The species is facing an uphill battle for survival, and it is important to continue conservation efforts such as those being conducted by the World Wildlife Fund to ensure that the vaquita porpoise does not go extinct.
Low population numbers initially led to fears that the species may become genetically compromised due to inbreeding, which could hasten their decline.
However, a 2022 study has found that this is not the case. The researchers analyzed the genomes of 20 vaquitas that lived between 1985 and 2017, and found that the species carries fewer harmful mutations than other marine mammals. This means that even if inbreeding occurs, offspring are unlikely to inherit negative traits that could compromise their health.
Vaquita porpoises have always existed in small numbers. As a result, few potentially hazardous genetic variants exist within the species’ genome. The study’s findings suggest that the vaquita may be able to rebound if human pressures are removed. However, the species remains critically endangered, and urgent action is needed to protect them from extinction.
Illegal totoaba fishing is the major threat to the vaquita porpoise. Totoaba is a large fish that is native to the Gulf of California. Unfortunately for vaquitas, the swim bladder of the totoaba is highly prized in China, where it is believed to have medicinal properties. The high demand and value of totoaba swim bladders in illegal animal trading has led to a thriving illegal fishing trade, and vaquitas are caught and killed in the nets.
The Mexican government has banned gillnet fishing in the vaquita’s habitat, but illegal fishing remains a major problem. Unfortunately, lack of enforcement is a big problem because the gillnet fishing ban is difficult to enforce. The Gulf of California is a large and remote area, and it is difficult for underfunded government agents to patrol the entire area.
The lack of economic opportunities in the Gulf of California contributes to the problem. Many people in the Gulf of California live in poverty, and they see illegal fishing as a way to make money. The high profits from illegal fishing can be very tempting. Fishermen can earn up to $8,500 for each kilogram of totoaba swim bladder. This amount is equal to a large percent of a year’s pay from legal fishing.
Thankfully, in 2021, the Mexican government announced a $1 million reward for information leading to the arrest of anyone caught illegally fishing for totoaba.
The vaquita porpoise is a critically important part of the Gulf of California ecosystem. It is the only species of porpoise that lives in the Gulf, and it plays a role in controlling populations of other marine animals. The vaquita’s extinction would be a major loss for the Gulf’s ecosystem.
With continued conservation efforts, there is hope that the vaquita porpoise can be saved from extinction. The Mexican government and conservation organizations continue their efforts to protect the vaquita and its habitat, and the discovery of more animals may make a huge difference in their survival odds.