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Vaquita Conservation

Illustration of vaquita with young vaquita Two vaquita swimming Vaquita at the surface of the water San Felipe lighthouse San Felipe Harbor
At about 5 feet in length, the vaquita is among the smallest cetaceans in the world. © Uko Gorte
Vaquitas are found in small groups of one to three individuals; often just a mother-and-calf pair. Paula Olson for NOAA Fisheries
The vaquita lives only in the northern Gulf of California, Mexico. It has the smallest geographical range of any marine mammal. Thomas Jefferson
San Felipe lighthouse and cerro El Machorro (Totoaba Crest), which are also used by fishermen as a navigational reference. The range of the vaquita coincides with most of the Upper Gulf of California and Delta of the Colorado River Biosphere Reserve, one of Earth’s most extraordinary marine habitats supporting a diversity of fishes, birds, marine reptiles, and marine mammals. Alex Espinosa
The highly productive waters of the Gulf are also excellent for fishing, producing fish, many species of invertebrates, including some of the world’s most valuable shrimp, sold for both domestic and U.S. consumption. Fishing is a major source of income for the local communities of San Felipe and El Golfo de Santa Clara. Alex Espinosa

The vaquita, a small porpoise found only in the northern Gulf of California in Mexico, is the world’s most endangered marine mammal.

Vaquitas are endangered because they accidentally entangle and drown in fishing nets, called gillnets, used for fish or shrimp. Vaquita deaths have increased recently due to entanglement in gillnets set for totoaba, a large fish—also endangered. Totoaba is harvested illegally for its swim bladder, which is prized in China. Fewer than 30 vaquitas remain, and the species will soon be extinct unless the mortality in fishing nets is eliminated. To save the vaquita, scientists agree that the only solution is to totally eliminate fishing with gillnets within vaquita habitat. A group of innovative Mexican fishermen are responding to the urgent need for action. Working with scientists, non-governmental agencies, and gear experts, these fishermen are developing new types of non-entangling fishing gear.

Southern California chefs weigh in on importance of vaquita-friendly seafood

Chef Rob Ruiz, Land and Water Company

en Español

Chef Davin Waite, Wrench and Rodent

en Español

Local fishermen are leaders in seeking new solutions

The vaquita has the right to live as well. If we don’t save them then our grandchildren won’t know them. I want them to be able to go fishing and see one and say, ‘Look, there is a vaquita like my tata (grandfather) used to see!’
— José Luis “Chalunga” Romero González
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Harmful gillnets are being phased out of the Upper Gulf of California. Their filaments are so fine and transparent that marine animals, including vaquitas, turtles, sharks, and totoaba (many of which are endangered) get entangled in them and drown. Alex Espinosa

The type of gillnets used in the northern Gulf of California are inexpensive and easy to use, and it is a challenge to find replacements that are ecologically and economically sustainable. Effective management and the use of environmentally responsible fishing gear means healthy ecosystems and sustainable communities. A group of forward-thinking fishermen are leading the way in their community and providing an example for the rest of the world. Their stories give great hope that it may be truly possible to switch from gillnets to alternative fishing gears that do not endanger vaquitas and that support new and sustainable livelihoods.

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Armando “Muelas” Castro prepares the acoustic detectors, called CPODs, for deployment throughout the vaquita’s range. The CPODs record the nearly continuous clicks vaquitas make when they are searching for food in the murky waters of the northern Gulf of California. They are a powerful new tool that helps scientists to better estimate trends in the population over time by listening to the vaquitas’ sounds. Alex Espinosa

These fishermen have been collaborating with government agencies and conservation organizations to design, test, and develop new fishing gears that do not endanger vaquitas. These fishermen have been working with Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change to deploy and retrieve acoustic monitoring devices throughout the vaquita’s range, helping scientists to estimate the population status of the vaquita and remove derelict fishing gear. They also work with Mexico’s National Fisheries Institute, World Wildlife Fund Mexico and NOAA Fisheries to test and develop various types of new, non-entangling fishing gear, such as lightweight trawls and traps. Their efforts were recently recognized when they were awarded the Conservation Merit Prize by the international Society for Marine Mammalogy for their role in the first large-scale gillnet ban and alternative gear development effort to save a marine mammal species from extinction.

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© Thomas A. Jefferson/VIVA Vaquita

Although their stories are unique, the problems the fishermen of the northern Gulf of California face are shared by coastal fishing communities around the world. Each year, hundreds of thousands of marine mammals are estimated to be killed in gillnets and other entangling fishing gear around the globe. Marine mammals are important to healthy ecosystems, and seafood is a source of healthy protein that plays an important role in an environmentally responsible food supply. It is imperative that fishermen around the world adopt best management practices and use environmentally responsible fishing gear to support healthy people, marine mammal populations, and ocean ecosystems.