8 facts about these wonderful mammals
(CNN Spanish) — You’ve probably never seen a live vaquita: these Mexican marine mammals are extraordinarily rare, with only about 10 left and they exclusively inhabit one area of the Gulf of California. And they are also shy and elusive. On the occasion of International Day of the Vaquita Marinawhich is celebrated on July 18, find out here what makes them so special and why they are on the verge of disappearing completely.
The figure: there are only about 10 vaquitas left
Currently there are only about 10 vaquitas left, according to the International Whaling Commission. The figure is alarmingly low, as is the speed with which the population of this mammal decreased: in 1997 it was estimated that there were just over 560 specimens, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature the figure dropped to 200 by 2005 and about 15 years later there are about a dozen left.
The agency highlights that, just 28 years after it was discovered, the species has already been classified as “vulnerable” on the IUCN red list. And since 1996 it is considered “critically endangered”.
For the WWFthe situation of the vaquita marina is a clear example of what is happening with several cetaceans, a category that includes whales, dolphins and porpoises.
The ‘world’s rarest’ marine mammal
The vaquita porpoise is not only the smallest marine mammal that inhabits the planet: experts qualify it as the “rarest”. It is difficult to observe it in its habitat, it is elusive and shy, and it moves away if it notices the presence of boats. It is endemic to the Gulf of California or the Sea of Cortez, which means that it only lives there.
What you need to know to recognize them
If you spotted a vaquita porpoise, how would you recognize it? Here are some of its main characteristics: the back is dark gray, on the sides the coloration is lighter gray and the belly is white. Around the eyes and lips there are black patches. It is a robust animal that weighs 55 kg in the case of adult females. These reach 1.5 meters, a little more than their male counterparts. The teeth are “spatula-shaped”, according to the government. The muzzle is short and the head rounded.
The formal discovery of the vaquitas was relatively recently: in 1958. However, since a little earlier there were tracks of these mammals, according to the Government from Mexico, which explains that the first description, which was based on three skulls found in San Felipe, Baja California, dates from the first half of the 20th century. Later, a complete description of the animal was made after the discovery of some stranded vaquitas.
His fate is linked to the crop of totoaba, the “cocaine of the sea”
The fate of the vaquitas has been closely linked to that of another marine animal that inhabits the same region: the totoaba fish, a species similar to the snook, which have a large maw that is highly coveted in China.
In traditional Chinese medicine, dried fish maw is believed to be an aphrodisiac and offers a myriad of health benefits. On the black market in that country, kilograms of maw can be sold for up to US$8,000, according to the government from Mexico. Not in vain has it been called “the cocaine of the sea”.
Trafficking of this fish, according to Explain the UN, is controlled by organized crime.
To fish for totoaba, fishermen use gillnets or gill nets in which the vaquitas get stuck and suffocate. That is why they end up being, as the institution explains, a “collateral victim of this furtive activity.”
Habitat alteration and pollution are others of the factors that affect their survival.
Another problem: low reproduction rates
There is another challenge to the survival of vaquitas: their low reproductive rate, a characteristic they share with other cetacean species. They reproduce every two years or more and gestation lasts between 10 and 11 months. In addition, each time they only give birth to one young. These pups weigh at least 7.5 kg at birth and measure between 70 and 78 cm.
In addition, according to the Government of Mexico, they have “low genetic variability”, which means that “they reproduce between close relatives who share the same genetic set.” “This is thought to cause some birth defects, such as a sixth digit in the pectoral fins, vertebral deficiencies, and in some females ovarian calcifications,” he explains. here.
Decades ago, efforts began to protect the vaquita porpoise. In 1992 the country banned the use of gillnets and years later, in 2017, gillnets. There is an International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita and a refuge area for this aquatic mammal. There is night fishing prohibited and ships must pass through monitored entry and exit points, to name a few measures.
This week, the government announced that it had defined new indicators for the “verification, vigilance and supervision” of fishing in the area inhabited by the porpoise. However, different organizations have warned that the efforts have been late or insufficient and ask for more action from Mexico, but also from the United States and China, which play a relevant role in totoaba trafficking.
Let the sad history of the baiji not be repeated
to the experts, the alarming situation facing vaquitas reminds them of another cetacean: the baiji. The baiji was a dolphin that lived in the Yangtze River in China. At the beginning of the 20th century it was estimated that there were just over 5,000 specimens, by 1980 there were 400 and in 1997 there were 13, according to the IUCN. The story of the baiji had a sad ending: after inhabiting the fresh waters of that river for millions of years, it became extinct in 2006. And, according to the agency, in this case too, man was responsible for the habitat modifications caused by dam construction, ship strikes, water pollution, and fishing bycatch.
And finally: why are they called vaquitas (and what other names do they have)?
“There is no clear explanation about the origin of the name”, UNAM says. However, their appearance may give some clues: the vaquitas are robust, have a white belly and dark rings around the eyes and mouth, says the University. Another resemblance to their terrestrial counterparts? The ancestors of the vaquita had four legs. The UNAM explains that “they returned to the water after millions of years and, little by little, they changed shape: the front legs became fins and the rear ones disappeared.”
If “vaquita porpoise” isn’t your thing, you have other names to choose from: they’re also called cochito, vaquita porpoise, and Gulf of California porpoise.
Editor’s Note: This content was originally published in 2021.