Plans for the Recovery of the Vaquita Fail

19 August, 2020
Today we'll take a look at the unfortunate failure of plans for the recover of the vaquita, a small cetacean that's similar to the dolphin.

Characteristics of the vaquita

The vaquita is a marine mammal, a toothed cetacean that only lives in the Gulf of California, in Mexico. More specifically, it lives in shallower waters and rarely distances itself from the coast. 

These mammals are the smallest cetaceans in the world. Specimens usually measure about 60 inches in length and weigh no more than 110 lbs. The largest animals that inhabit our planet are cetaceans like the blue whale. Given this fact, we can appreciate how surprisingly small vaquitas really are.

As for their appearance, we have to point out that the upper part of their bodies is dark gray in color. This shade fades into white as it reaches the animal’s belly. What’s more, they possess fins that are proportionately larger in comparison to the other cetaceans. The shape of their lips is also peculiar.

In regards to the vaquita’s behavior, it’s very difficult to spot them in the wild. They only come to the surface for a moment in order to breathe and then go back under the water. And, as for their feeding habits, these animals are predators, feeding on fish and shrimp. They locate their prey thanks to their echolocation system.

The history of the recovery of the vaquita

Forty years ago, experts warned for the first time about how this species was at risk. At this time, they began the first plans for the recovery of the vaquita. Just the same, during the 1990s, the species was declared to be in danger of extinction. At that point, the entire world came together to prevent this tragedy.

As these animals are shy and spend almost all of their time underwater, studying vaquitas is a complicated task. The size of their population has always been based on estimates. In 1997, experts believed there to be some 560 vaquitas, while in 2000, they estimated that only 100 to 300 vaquitas remained.

At the same time, the Gulf of California was declared a biosphere reserve and later named a refuge area for the vaquita. Since 2013, conservationists have implemented a number of different actions to save this species. These included modifying the professions of the fishers that produced the death of many vaquitas, attempting to encourage observation tourism, etc.

Then, in 2017, conservation groups initiated a more desperate plan for the recovery of the vaquita, believing there to be only some 30 specimens in existence. Their idea was to capture all of the vaquitas that were left and protect them in captivity. In doing so, they hoped the animals would reproduce and increase their numbers in order to return to the wild. However, this plan has also failed.

The failures of plans for the recovery of the vaquita

Despite conservation efforts, none of the plans have been successful. Local fishermen have changed the way they work, but they’ve failed and fallen into ruin. At the same time, observation tourism hasn’t brought about the desired results, bringing in less income than expected.

The problem is that we know very little about the vaquita. In fact, conservationists were unaware of the docility of these animals and if they would resist being in contact with humans. Therefore, the initiation of their plan was a desperate measure that they had to implement practically blindfolded.

The first two specimens they rescued and brought into captivity have shown us that the animals couldn’t survive. The first was a young vaquita that would die without the care of its mother. The second one died while the conservationists were transferring it to the new installations…apparently as a result of the stress sustained during capture.

Vaquitas in the wild.
Source: Paula Olson

Scientists have been unable to find another solution to prevent the extinction of the vaquita. Many have accepted that this species will soon disappear since we don’t know enough about them to assist in their reproduction. What’s more, their habitat can no longer be protected.

The causes behind their endangerment

As in almost every case of endangerment and extinction, there are many causes that have led to the current situation.

The number one cause of death in vaquitas is getting trapped in illegal fishing nets that are meant to capture the totoaba fish. The capture of the totoaba is also illegal, given that it’s also in danger of extinction and under protection. However, it’s one of the biggest-paying fish in certain parts of Asia.

Another cause of the decline of the vaquita has to do with the poor quality of the food they ingest. The damming of the Colorado River has affected the number of fish available to the vaquita, as well as their quality.

Unlike many other cetaceans, vaquitas don’t live in social groups, but, rather, they’re independent beings. Therefore, it’s harder and harder for them to find one another in order to reproduce. What’s more, female vaquitas only become pregnant once a year and have only one baby. Therefore, their reproductive capacity is very limited.

Finally, some scientists have given up on plans for the recovery of the vaquita ever working. This attitude only contributes to its eventual extinction. Others are still making some last-ditch efforts to help the vaquita. However, it appears that, very soon, the vaquita will be one more extinct species.