Sighting of Young Vaquitas Offers Hope for the World's Most Endangered Porpoise


There may be only 30 vaquitas left – but it appears that conservation efforts may be paying off for the world's smallest porpoise.

Last year we wrote about the bold efforts by the Mexican government to save the vaquita porpoise from extinction. With fewer than 30 member of Phocoena sinus left in the world – all in the the upper Gulf of California – the Mexican government committed more than $100 million to save and protect the "panda of the sea."

Since the notably adorable and big-eyed cetaceans are notoriously shy and elusive, knowing whether or not the efforts have been panning out has been hard to ascertain. But now the Associated Press is reporting that six sightings of the tiny marine mammals have been recorded – giving researchers and vaquita fans alike something to (cautiously) cheer about.

Elisabeth Malkin writes in the The New York Times that it has been nearly two years since the last count of vaquitas was undertaken. At that time there were 30 vaquitas left. In the ensuing two years, illegal fishing in the area has persisted. Seven vaquitas have died or been killed, notes Malkin, and experts fear that more have been entangled in gill nets and have drowned.

“Every time I go to look for vaquitas, I worry it will be my last time to see them or that we may not even be able to find them,” Barbara Taylor, a biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, wrote in an email to The Times.

But late last month, she was aboard a research vessel and lo and behold, they spotted a mother and calf, "a sight greeted with elation and relief."

Short after, researchers saw two more adults – the following day, at least two additional pairs appeared, including what they believed to be another calf. Previously it was thought that vaquita females could only reproduce every two years, but with observers having seen an adult with a calf last year and the same adult with a smaller calf again this year, it's possible that they can bear a baby annually.

“Calving every year doubles their growth rate and gives more hope for recovery,” Taylor says.

The threats to this special creature read just like a chapter from an imagined Endangered Animals Playbook. Endemic to the area, they have been long endangered thanks to the gill nets which sweep the seafood-rich Gulf. "But it was the illegal trade in a fish called the totoaba that pushed the vaquita to the edge of extinction," Malkin writes. "Demand in China for the endangered totoaba’s swim bladder, considered to be a delicacy, drives a far-flung criminal network."

Last year, an acoustic monitoring system was set up to help locate the porpoises – and data from those monitors helped this recent expedition to find the vaquitas they observed. The man who leads the acoustic monitoring program, marine mammal expert Armando Jaramillo Legorreta, says that “they are not destined for extinction” if protected in time. “At least, we have very clear information that the species continues there, that it continues to reproduce, that it’s in good health,” he says.

The resourceful little cetaceans are doing their best, now if we could just something about the human component of this problem. It's hard to believe that people continue to lust after certain animal products when their consumption could spell the extinction of an entire species. Is eating a totoaba’s swim bladder really worth losing the world's only pandas of the sea?