Do you remember last year, in keeping with the Olympic vibe that was in the air, Nature Matters brought you some lists of animal record holders? One of those lists was very grim reading indeed – it gave a rundown of those species most at risk of extinction. In second place was the vaquita porpoise, around 60 of which remained alive. I’m sorry to tell you that the vaquita has now claimed the top spot for itself – only 30 of these animals now exist.
Porpoises are very similar to dolphins, though smaller and with much shorter snouts. In fact, the vaquita porpoise is the smallest species of cetacean (cetaceans are whales, dolphins and porpoises). They grow to about 140cm in length which is the same as the height of an average 10-year-old human.
Like their dolphin relatives, vaquitas communicate via high pitched squeals and clicks. They also use echolocation to hunt for food which is usually small fish or squid. But, unlike dolphins, vaquitas live in very small groups of two or three. The species is unique in another way: it is only found in one place on Earth – the far northern end of the Gulf of California, in Mexico.
For a long time vaquitas have been in trouble. In 1997 there were only 600 of them alive. By 2014 the number had gone down to 100. In 2015 there were an estimated 60 left and now there are believed to be less than 30 vaquitas. Unless this pattern changes immediately, the animals will be lost very soon indeed.
So, what is it that’s killing vaquitas – loss of habitat, human hunting, disease? Actually, it’s none of these – at least not directly. They are actually being killed accidentally. Fishermen place nets in the waters to catch mackerel, shrimp, sharks and rays. Sadly, they inadvertently catch vaquitas too. As they are air-breathing mammals, vaquitas caught in nets are trapped underwater where they drown.
For two years these nets have been banned by the Mexican Government. Sadly, the ban has had only a nominal effect as many fishermen just ignored it. What little difference the ban did make will soon cease anyway, as it will be lifted in June. Environmental campaigners are calling for the ban to be both extended and enforced. Let’s hope they are successful – otherwise vaquitas will be wiped out in only a year or two.
I’m sure you’ll agree with us here at Education Quizzes that action should be taken to save the vaquita. If you’d like to help then follow this link. It will take you to a petition to the President of Mexico set up by the WWF. Add your name and do your bit.