Another species of marine mammal is on the verge of extinction. The Vaquita (Phocoena sinus), a small porpoise endemic to the northern Gulf of Mexico, is reportedly just 30 individuals away from being lost forever. The name vaquita is Spanish for “little cow,” and it looks somewhat like a panda mixed with a dolphin. Because individuals suffer high mortality when trapped in illegal gill nets used by fishermen, the vaquita populations have plummeted since 1997. Mexico has spent millions trying to stop the illegal practice of using gill nets, but to date has not been able to prevent it completely.
Faced with the imminent loss of the vaquita, the Mexican government approved a conservation plan in April, 2017. The plan, however, may not be implemented until October, 2017, as there are many logistical hurdles, including building enclosures to house the captive breeding program. There are also many unknowns, such as whether the vaquita will breed in captivity, how long they live, what age they mature sexually, and the minimum number of individuals necessary to keep the species from going extinct. It will be tricky to get all of the things needed to save the vaquita by October. Let’s hope the efforts that the Mexican government is taking, and the recent awareness brought to the issue by Leonardo De Caprio and several wildlife conservation organizations, will help turn things around. Otherwise, like the Chinese river dolphin, we will lose another unique aquatic species.