This article is the first installment of a new series titled Unsung Animalia. The idea of this series is to take a deeper look into the creatures of our world that are either unappreciated or vastly unknown. To build upon this, the goal of this series is to leave readers with a greater knowledge of our fellow earthly inhabitants.
Rarely seen amongst the waves of the Gulf of California lies the elusive vaquita, an animal that has become a beacon for conservation in its dying hours.
The vaquita is a diminutive creature, reaching a maximum length of 5 ft. and a weight of 120 pounds. Compared to its relative, the bottlenose dolphin, which has a maximum length of 14 ft. and weight of 1,100 pounds, the vaquita is truly a miniscule marine mammal. The limited population of the vaquita only lives in one small area amassing a total of 4,000 sq. km (NOAA fisheries) in the northern Gulf of California
Its small size and minimal range provide some explanation for the date of its discovery. The vaquita was not recognized by the scientific community until 1958, at which point enough data had been compiled from shoreward skulls to confirm the existence of a new species.
Working from a broader classification to a more specific one, the vaquita is classified as follows:
- Kingdom: Animalia (Animals)
- Phylum: Chordata (Chordates)
- Subphylum: Vertebrata (Vertebrates)
- Class: Mammalia (Mammals)
- Order: Cetacea (Dolphins, porpoises, and whales)
- Family: Phocoenidae (Porpoises)
- Genus: Phocoena (Common porpoises)
- Species: Phocoena sinus (Vaquita)
Although the vaquita has never been a widespread species, the limited population it had sustained has now shrunk to near-death levels. Experts estimate that only 22 vaquita may remain on the planet, making it the most endangered Cetacean.
The reason behind the vaquita’s critically endangered status should come as no surprise: it’s all due to the greed of humans. The vaquita shares its limited habitat with another endangered animal, a fish called the totoaba. While luckily the vaquita holds no value on the black market, the totoaba is desired for its swim bladder. Each organ, once dried, can fetch up to $4,000 per pound on the black market for its uses in traditional Chinese medicine. Due to the swim bladder’s ridiculous demand, a lucrative market is opened to the fisherman of the northern Gulf. And finally, to catch these totoaba, the fishermen utilize gillnets. With no intent of catching the creatures alive, each gillnet is designed to kill the captured via drowning. Unfortunately, the vaquita is caught in the crossfire of this illegal trade. WWF estimates that 1 in 5 vaquita will be caught and killed in gillnets.
The vaquita has held the status of Critically Endangered as of 1979 and since then there have been numerous attempts to save the vaquita. One of these attempts by SEMARNAT, a capture mission, set out with a goal to create a captive breeding population. Upon successfully capturing two vaquita, both were monitored constantly and found to have rapidly increasing heart rates. SEMARNAT then attempted to release these animals only to have one die before reaching the water. With the hope of a captive population cast aside due to the immense stress on the animals, we must now strengthen their natural habitat. If the vaquita species is to survive this plight, the Mexican government, US government, and even the Chinese government must all collaborate to impose strict bans on the trade of Totoaba and the usage of gillnets.
There are minimal options left for the vaquita. As of 2019, with no recent data regarding the vaquita population, it’s possible that the species is even closer to extinction that we presume. Scientists suggest that even with the nearly impossible removal of all threats to the vaquita, there may no longer be enough genetic diversity among the species. The risk of inbreeding is extremely high, and if a disease were to sweep through the species, it could wipe out the population with one fell swoop.
The odds are stacked against the vaquita, an incredible creature unlike any other animal on the planet. Personally, while I want to retain hope for the species survival, I fear that it is too late. Ideally, the vaquita will be miraculously saved by the renewed compassion of the people.