Vaquitas are among the most endangered animals on the planet, with only 10 individuals left alive. Related to harbour porpoises, the mammals measure about five feet in length, small enough to be threatened by fishers using gillnets in the north of Mexico’s Gulf of California, the only place in the world where they occur. These finely-woven, massive nets are used to catch shrimp and fish, but too often entangle vaquitas as well.
With so few vaquitas remaining, many researchers worry that the population may not be able to recover genetically, even if gillnet fishing—which is illegal in the area where vaquitas still occur—stops. A study published May 5 in the journal Science contains some positive news, however: It suggests that the species’ genetic diversity has long been quite low, and that vaquitas may therefore be less vulnerable to inbreeding than many other species.
Using a model to explore how likely the population is to survive under different conditions, the researchers show that in scenarios where no more vaquitas die in nets, there is only a six percent chance they would go extinct. But preventing more vaquitas from dying is urgent. That part of the story is unfortunately less encouraging.
“It’s a really exciting study,” says Barbara Taylor of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, one of the authors, “because it gives scientists new tools to ask whether this species is really doomed to extinction because of genetics, or whether we should be worrying about other things.”
“All conservation is about changing human behaviour,” she adds. “If that comes at an economic cost, and people can use the excuse that they’re doomed anyway, that’s bound to be a hurdle to action.”
Today, vaquitas only live in a very small area, about 15 miles long and 7.5 miles wide, at the far northern edge of the Gulf of California, says Taylor, who surveyed the region in 2019 and 2021. Gillnets have long been illegal there, but the bans are not enforced, she says.
“People were still setting and retrieving their gillnets, and no one made any attempt to hide it.” The only legal way to catch blue shrimp from small boats at the moment is by using small trawlers instead of gillnets, but Taylor says no such gear was observed in the northern Gulf and that all shrimp were still caught by gillnets. These shrimp are reportedly sold to industrial shrimp trawlers so they can still be exported, mostly to the United States.
An earlier effort to convince local fishermen to switch to vaquita-safe fishing gear was starting to show promise about 10 years ago, says Taylor. “That all came to a crashing halt when people started fishing for totoaba,” a rare, large fish considered endangered in Mexico that is illegal to harvest. Some people in China believe the swim bladders of this species have medicinal benefits, despite a total lack of scientific evidence. But the astronomical prices the bladders command have led to the involvement of organised crime in regional fisheries, making the use of gillnets even harder to control.
As a result, the vaquita population has now dwindled to an estimated 10 individuals, down from around 600 in 1997. To better understand the genetic diversity of the remaining vaquitas, an international team of researchers decided to sequence the entire genome of 20 animals from which body tissue samples were collected between 1985 and 2017. Like humans, vaquitas have two versions of most genes, one inherited from each of their parents. Looking at how often the two versions were identical in animals sampled in different years, the scientists could estimate how genetic diversity has changed, and how much of it remains.
The analysis suggests that vaquitas have long been rare. The study estimates that their population size had already dipped below 3,000 individuals more than 25,000 years ago. This means genetic diversity has been relatively low for a long time, says Jacqueline Robinson of the University of California in San Francisco, one of the study’s lead authors, and the data does not indicate it has dramatically decreased in the past three decades. But is that really encouraging?
That vaquita population numbers have long been low, is in fact good news, Robinson argues. Over time, many of the worst-performing variants of important genes have probably been lost whenever individuals that ended up with two copies of them died early or did not have any offspring.
“If a much larger population would have plummeted to 10 individuals over the same course of time,” she explains, “their genetic challenges would have been more severe, and their chance of going extinct much higher.”
Obviously, none of this means vaquitas are off the hook. Using the same model that allowed them to estimate past population numbers to predict what might happen in the future, the researchers estimated the chance that the species would go extinct. These numbers are just approximations, of course, says Christopher Kyriazis of the University of California, Los Angeles, who led the modeling part of the study. They reflect how often the population went extinct in the model, which was run many times over.
In scenarios where no more vaquitas die in fishing nets, the population survives 94 percent of the time, leaving a six percent chance that they would still disappear. When death from bycatch was reduced by 90 percent, extinction risk increased to 27 percent. If deaths were reduced by only 80 percent, extinction risk climbed to a staggering 62 percent.
But reducing the number of deaths from bycatch by 90 percent would mean that just one animal would die in a net roughly every 2.75 years, or every 1.5 years for an 80 percent reduction, says Kyriazis. To accomplish even that, it will be urgent to prevent gillnets from being used in the vaquitas’ habitat, which is long overdue.
A best case scenario
So how can this be done?
“Two things have to happen together,” says Taylor. “The first thing has to be: no fishing where the vaquitas are, and then, as quickly as possible, a transition to new gear. It will take governmental support to make that happen, and within Mexico, that has not been forthcoming to date.”
Banning the import of blue shrimp until illegal fisheries are rooted out might be another action. “There are some ongoing discussions with Mexico over the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, and I think it’s really important to get honest, genuine information out there.”
Mexican government officials did not respond to several emails requesting comment from National Geographic.
Taylor stresses there is no evidence that vaquitas are recovering, and this would be a very dangerous moment to claim otherwise. But Taylor does believe the new study is good news, and the species could still be saved.
“There are other examples of wild populations that have come back from very low numbers. Northern elephant seals were down to around 30, and now they number over 300,000.” The predictions in the study for vaquitas are more humble, however, with a best case scenario of 300 individuals by 2070 if no more animals were to die as a consequence of illegal fisheries.
Providing local communities with alternatives to gillnets will be crucial, says Píndaro Díaz-Jaimes of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Mexico. He stresses that other measures, like ending the export of totoaba to China, will require international cooperation. In a letter to Science in August 2021, he called the then recent decision by the government to reduce efforts to control illegal fisheries ”Mexico’s final death blow to the vaquita.” Yet he does feel the new study provides some reason for hope.
“I am a bit more pessimistic,” says marine biologist Mads Peter Heide-Jørgensen of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, who studies whale populations in the Arctic. He cites concerns that there could be other problems for really small populations that the model may not entirely account for, such as the fact that it may become very difficult for vaquitas to find mates when there are only a few individuals left.
He agrees with the authors that the most urgent issue would be to stop the deaths from bycatch, “by the rigorous enforcement of a ban on gillnet fisheries in the primary vaquita habitat. This should have been implemented by the Mexican government long before the vaquita was driven to the edge of extinction.”
“These survivors give us a small breathing space,” says Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, another co-author, with the United Nations Development Programme, “to shift our course to sustainable fisheries.”
It may well be the vaquitas’ last chance to catch a breath before being entangled in the nets of extinction.
These critically endangered marine mammals have enough genetic diversity to recover if fishers switch to sustainable gear. That's a big if. Vaquitas are among the most endangered animals on the planet, with only 10 individuals left alive.Can vaquitas recover? ›
Recent sightings of live vaquita, including calves, give conservationists hope. The fact that vaquita are still reproducing indicates that there is still time to reverse the species' decline. If the threat of gillnets can be eliminated, the vaquita might stand a chance at recovery.How can vaquitas be saved? ›
You can help by making sustainable choices when buying seafood. There are programs to help you make that choice, such as Seafood Watch in the United States or SeaChoice or Ocean Wise in Canada. Avoid Mexican shrimp! Conservation organizations from around the world have issued a call to boycott shrimp caught in Mexico.How many vaquitas are left in 2023? ›
Only around 10 vaquita likely remain, and scientists predict the species will soon be extinct unless Mexico halts illegal fishing in the vaquita's habitat.What is currently being done to help the vaquita? ›
The NMMF is a key partner in VaquitaCPR (Conservation, Protection, & Recovery), a consortium comprised of marine mammal scientists, veterinarians, and biologists from around the world that came together to attempt to save the vaquita porpoise from extinction.Why should vaquitas be saved? ›
The vaquita is also a food source for multiple shark species, such as the great white shark, and possibly killer whales, so therefore the absence of vaquitas would make it more difficult for these predatory species to locate prey (3).How many vaquita are left? ›
Mexico's Gulf of California — one of the most biodiverse places on the planet — teems with 891 species of fish and a third of the world's cetacean species, including the smallest and most endangered porpoise on Earth: the vaquita. Scientists say there are likely only 10 vaquitas left on Earth.How much does a vaquita cost? ›
The swim bladders are often illegally smuggled over the US border and then shipped to China where it can sell up to USD 8,500 per kilogram in the black market.What would happen if vaquitas went extinct? ›
The extinction of the vaquita could disrupt the equilibrium of these predator-prey relationships, potentially leading to imbalances in the populations of other marine organisms. Additionally, the vaquita's plight is indicative of broader environmental challenges faced by the Gulf of California.Are vaquitas protected? ›
Vaquitas are protected under both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. They have been listed as endangered under the ESA since 1985.
The rarest animal in the world is the vaquita (Phocoena sinus). It is a kind of critically endangered porpoise that only lives in the furthest north-western corner of the Gulf of California in Mexico. There are only 18 left in the world. It is thought that they may be extinct in ten years.How many vaquitas are left 1990? ›
The vaquita is the smallest porpoise, and the smallest cetacean. It lives only in the Gulf of California (Sea of Cortez), where fewer than 20 individuals remain. The original population in the 1930s was estimated to be around 5,000 individuals strong. In the 1990s, that number had declined to about 700.How old is the oldest vaquita? ›
The oldest individual was estimated to be 21 years old. All specimens less than three years old were sexually immature and all greater than six years old were mature.What is the future of the vaquita? ›
The vaquita will be extinct if fishery bycatch is not eliminated immediately.What eats the vaquita? ›
The vaquita is an essential part of the natural food chain within its habitat, existing as both a predator and as prey for top predators such as sharks and killer whales.What threat level is the vaquita? ›
|Vaquita Temporal range:|
|Critically Endangered (IUCN 3.1)|
|CITES Appendix I (CITES)|
As in previous years, vaquitas have died in nets set for totoaba. In addition to the meat, this endangered fish is prized for its swim bladder, which is exported to China where it is used as an ingredient in soup and believed to have medicinal value.What are vaquitas good for? ›
Vaquitas exist as both predator and prey in their natural habitat. Preyed upon by members of the shark family, Vaquitas serve as important food sources for top predators.Why are vaquitas so important? ›
The vaquita is an essential part of the natural food chain within its habitat, existing as both a predator and as prey for top predators such as sharks and killer whales. These gentle creatures serve as a vital mechanism of population control for several species of fish, crustaceans, and cephalopods.Is there any hope for the vaquita? ›
“Against all the odds, we still have one last chance to save the vaquita,” said Barbara Taylor, a research scientist at NOAA Fisheries' Southwest Fisheries Science Center and coauthor of the paper. “Give these animals a chance and they can survive.”
There are only 10 of the world's smallest marine mammal left in the world. A vaquita mother (right) and her calf (left) can be seen as they surface in the waters off San Felipe, Baja California, in Mexico. Sign up for CNN's Wonder Theory science newsletter.What does vaquita taste like? ›
This is a delicious mexican candy known as "Chicloso" from the mexican brand Canels and the line of candies "La Vaquita". This tasty candy has a sweet flavor of coffee and a rich gooey texture that will melt on your mouth.Are vaquita cute? ›
If you've never heard of the vaquita, you're not alone. These small, shy and incredibly cute sea creatures are the smallest marine mammal in the world, measuring only five feet long and weighing up to 120 pounds.How do vaquitas breathe? ›
Like all cetaceans vaquita do not have gills as fish do—they breathe air. Once entangles in a net, they cannot surface for air. While use of large mesh gill nets was banned, smaller nets still entangle vaquita as bycatch.Is pollution a threat to vaquitas? ›
The vaquita is also endangered by ghost nets. In addition, there is the decline in fish stocks, which provide a food source for marine mammals, and the pollution of their habitats by agricultural pesticides released into the sea.What species has only 1 left? ›
View history Tools The last known thylacine (Tasmanian tiger), photographed at Hobart Zoo in 1933. An endling is the last known individual of a species or subspecies. Once the endling dies, the species becomes extinct. The word was coined in correspondence in the scientific journal Nature.What is the 4th rarest animal? ›
|1||Kakapo (Strigops habroptila)||New Zealand|
|2||Philippine Crocodile (Crocodylus mindorensis)||The Philippines|
|3||Amur Leopard (Panthera pardus orientalis)||The Amur Region, Russia & China|
|4||Addax (Addax nasomaculatus)||Termit Tin Toumma, Niger|
An analysis of acoustic data from the upper Gulf of California in northwestern Mexico found that, as of November, only about 30 vaquitas likely remained in their habitat, the report said. A previous census between September and December 2015 had found around 60 vaquitas. There were 200 of them in 2012 and 100 in 2014.How many vaquitas were in 2000? ›
Vaquitas are slow-growing and by the year 2000, genetic evidence of inbreeding was apparent. That is not surprising; that year the total vaquita population was estimated to be around 224 individuals.Are there 10 vaquitas left? ›
There Are Only Around 10 Vaquita Porpoises Left on Earth, But All Is Not Lost… Yet. Swimming around in Mexico's Gulf of California, there exists a tiny little marine mammal that might be the cutest of all marine mammals.
Young vaquita calves are nursed for several months before being weaned. Females give birth to one calf about every two years. Calves weigh approximately 20 pounds at birth.How long can a vaquita live? ›
Lifespan is also low, with individuals likely living no longer than approximately 25 years. Vaquitas are predatory and eat a variety of Gulf of California fishes, squids, and crustaceans.Do vaquitas sleep? ›
As the Vaquita is diurnal, it sleeps at night and is active during the day. Many other animals are nocturnal, meaning they are active at night and sleep during the day. In its habitat, the Vaquita is prey to animals like large sharks and killer whales.Can vaquita swim? ›
The Vaquita has a very specialized habitat, swimming no more than 25 kilometers from shore and staying in shallow lagoons up to 28 meters deep. Being the only type of porpoise living in such warm waters, the Vaquita has evolved to have very large dorsal fins.Is A vaquita A Whale or a dolphin? ›
Vaquitas, known scientifically as Phocoena sinus, are neither dolphins nor what you commonly call whales, but they do belong to the same group of marine mammals, known as cetaceans. Vaquitas are actually a species of porpoise, which is a distinct subgroup within the cetacean family.Why are vaquita hunted? ›
Now, the major threat to vaquitas is the illegal fishing of totoaba. These are big fish that are prized for their swim bladder. There's a massive demand for these from China where it's smuggled in and sold on the black market for Chinese medicine.How long have vaquitas been around? ›
The tiny vaquita porpoise is the world's smallest and most endangered cetacean species. This species split from its closest taxonomic relatives 4.8 million years ago and is now endemic to a small range (4,000 km2) in the turbid waters of the northern Gulf of California, Mexico.What if vaquita went extinct? ›
The extinction of the vaquita could disrupt the equilibrium of these predator-prey relationships, potentially leading to imbalances in the populations of other marine organisms. Additionally, the vaquita's plight is indicative of broader environmental challenges faced by the Gulf of California.Can vaquita survive in captivity? ›
There are currently no vaquitas in captivity in zoos or aquariums. In fact, experts have not successfully kept vaquitas in captivity for any significant length of time. Previous attempts to capture and house them in controlled environments have proven challenging and even fatal for these sensitive animals.What is the vaquita survival status? ›
Vaquitas are protected under both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. They have been listed as endangered under the ESA since 1985.
Gillnets and by-catch
The single most serious threat to the vaquita, and the cause for its rapid decline, is the use of gillnets in the vaquita habitat. A gillnet is a wall of netting that hangs in the water column. The mesh is designed so that fish can get their heads through, but not the rest of their bodies.
Given the continued rate of bycatch and low reproductive output from a small population, it is estimated that there are fewer than 10 vaquitas alive as of February 2022.Who is trying to save the vaquita? ›
Among the efforts to protect the vaquita adopted by the Government of Mexico are the designation of a Biosphere Reserve (The Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site) in 1993 and, in 2005, the establishment of a Vaquita Refuge, where all commercial fishing ( ...How many vaquitas are left 20222? ›
There are only 10 of the world's smallest marine mammal left in the world.