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Vaquitas: What are the ‘smiling pandas’ of the sea and why are they going extinct?

The vaquita is the world's smallest and most-endangered porpoise.
The vaquita is the world's smallest and most-endangered porpoise.   -   Copyright  Paula Olson/NOAA via AP
By Lottie Limb

It’s easy to fall in love with the vaquita, a little porpoise belonging to the cetacean family of dolphins and whales.

Their markings - large dark rings around their eyes and dark patches on their lips which look like smiles - give them an undeniably cute, even cartoonish appearance. Unfortunately, being endearing to humans has not helped much so far, as only around 10 individuals still exist.

Vaquitas are the world’s rarest marine mammal, and there’s a sad probability they’ll disappear in our lifetime, according to conservation groups.

They were only discovered in 1958, so we haven’t had much time to get to know them properly. ‘Vaquita’ is Spanish for “little cow”, a fitting name size-wise as they measure less than five feet - smaller than the average bathtub.

They were given this quaint name by local fishermen and it caught on, but their scientific name is actually ‘Phocoena sinus’. The first part of the name is Latin for porpoise (literally “pig fish”) and ‘sinus’ means cavity in reference to the Gulf of California.

This narrow strip of sea, part of the Pacific Ocean which flows between mainland Mexico and the peninsula of Baja California, is the only place vaquitas live. With their numbers drastically falling in recent years, vaquitas are now limited to the northwestern corner of the gulf.

As the species doesn’t migrate - and females give birth to only one calf every two years (after a gestation period of 11 months) - the surviving cetaceans are in urgent need of protection.

But a vital battle to safeguard their habitat was lost this year, pushing them even closer to the brink of extinction.

Vaquitas are vanishing from “the world’s aquarium”

Rebecca Blackwell/AP
WWF volunteers installed replicas of the porpoise in front of the National Palace in 2017, calling on the Mexican government to do more to protect them.Rebecca Blackwell/AP

The Gulf of California, otherwise known as the Sea of Cortéz, supports an extraordinary diversity of marine life. So much so that it was nicknamed “the world’s aquarium” by French diver Jacques Cousteau in 1940 (the red-hatted inspiration for Wes Anderson’s film The Life Aquatic).

Since then it’s teeming inhabitants have been threatened by industrial and over-fishing, pollution, pesticide run-off and more.

Most troubling for vaquitas is the illegal nets that fishers use to catch another protected species: totoaba. These fish are a similar size, and a Chinese interest in their ‘swim bladder’ has fuelled demand for them.

Dubbed “cocaine of the sea,” 10-year-old dried swim bladders can sell for more than €71,000 a kilo in China, where they are highly prized for their unproven ‘medicinal properties’.

The fishermen of San Felipe, a coastal town on the peninsula, make only a fraction of this. But the economic drivers are pushing them to use gillnets - curtains of large mesh that entrap the vaquitas as well as totoaba.

Why are they no longer being protected in Mexico?

Marco Ugarte/AP Photo
A funereal artwork for vaquitas was left by activists in Mexico City, 2018.Marco Ugarte/AP Photo

To protect the critically endangered porpoise, the Mexican government established a ‘zero tolerance’ zone in the upper Gulf of California in 2017, even expanding it last September.

But just 10 months later it granted fishers open access to the refuge. Though gillnet fishing is technically still banned, it will likely increase without proper enforcement.

It is this development that conservationists believe will seal the fate of the adorable mammal. Marine consultant Kate O’Connell of the US-based Animal Welfare Institute told Mongabay that she fears this is “the death knell for the vaquita”, which “are being mismanaged to death.”

So why does the Mexican government hold vaquitas' existence so lightly?

The loosening hold on fishers looks like an appeal for popularity, and votes. But experts also point to the failure to tackle the underlying trafficking and organised crime networks that are driving illegal fishing.

Concerned members of the community and NGOs haven’t given hope yet. Mexican NGO Museo de la Ballena is one of a number of groups that has been removing gillnets from the formerly protected area. It is also working with locals and sponsoring alternatives to fishing, such as oyster cultivation.