The Vaquita is the smallest cetacean and most endangered marine mammal in the world, with only an estimated 20 individuals remaining. The Vaquita­–Spanish for “little cow”–is endemic to the Upper Gulf of California in the Sea of Cortez with a range of only a mere 3,000 km. The population has been in decline for decades due to entanglement and drowning in gill nets used to target the endangered Totoaba, a large fish exploited for its swim bladders.  The Totoaba swim bladder is considered a delicacy with medicinal value in China, often selling on the black market for tens of thousands of dollars.

Mexico News Daily

The most common cause of death for Vaquita is entanglement and drowning in gill nets, used to target the endangered Totoaba fish. Totoaba swim bladders, pictured above, are sold on the black market and are used for traditional Chinese medicine.

It has been illegal to fish for Totoaba in Mexico since 1975, but this hasn’t stopped illegal poaching activity, and the fishing ban has failed to slow the decline of the Vaquita. Following the failure of prior conservation efforts, an emergency plan to capture some individuals and place them under protection in temporary captivity was carried out. Unfortunately, the endeavour was unsuccessful, and the future for this little porpoise remains uncertain.

Saturday, July 6th is International Save the Vaquita Day.  As we reflect on the plight of the Vaquita, we remember other marine mammal populations who have been brought back from the brink of extinction, such as the North Atlantic Grey Whale and the Northern Elephant Seal.  These success stories serve as an important reminder as to why we shouldn’t give up on trying to save some of the earth’s most endangered species, even when it seems like it may be too late. Here are two inspirational stories of recovery from our local waters:

Success story #1: The Humpback Comeback

The huge accordion mouth, broad tail flukes, and massive white pectoral fins might be a familiar image for many who live near the coastal waters of British Columbia; however, this wasn’t always the case. The North Pacific Humpback whale population was wiped out by whaling in the early 1900s.  By the time whaling was banned in 1966, it was estimated that a mere 1,400 individuals remained.  In recent years, the North Pacific Humpback population is recovering, and is now estimated to consist of 18,000 to 20,000 individuals. These majestic animals can now be frequently observed along the B.C. coast, feeding on small schooling fish and krill in the summer months. This does not mean that Humpbacks don’t still face their fair share of challenges, however. Entanglement and ship strikes are of particular concern for this species and they are still listed as Special Concern under Canada’s Species at Risk Act.

Humpback whales have made a remarkable comeback in British Columbia. However, they are still threatened by human activities! In this photo, you can see the scar left behind by a boat propeller. Humpback whales are susceptible to vessel collisions due to their unpredictable movements and tendency to feed at the surface.

Success story #2: The Return of an Important-and Adorable!-Keystone Species

Sea otters are considered an important conservation success story in Canada, not only because of its success but also because of the important role these animals play within the ecosystem. These furry marine mammals, hunted for their fur during the 1700s and 1800s and driven to extinction in Canadian waters, were successfully reintroduced between 1969 and 1972. By 1995, the population had grown to 1,500 individuals and now stands at around 6,000. By eating sea urchins, which feed on kelp, sea otters control the urchin populations, reducing the destruction of kelp forests and helping to improve the overall functioning of the ecosystem. Kelp forests provide an important refuge for many marine species and even offer coastal protection. This is just one example of how upper trophic level species are so important for maintaining ecosystem balance.

Ocean Wise

Sea otters rest in a kelp bed near Tofino.

Is there Hope for the Vaquita?

The critically endangered vaquita, found only in the Gulf of Mexico, is at high risk of extinction due to entanglement in fishing gear. It is estimated that less than 20 animals remain.

Although the population is small, Dr. Anna Hall of the Porpoise Conservation Society believes that there is still hope for the Vaquita.  In 2018, observers spotted a group of Vaquita with at least one calf, indicating that there is still a breeding population.  By eliminating the illegal fishing in the area – the only real and imminent threat to the Vaquita – the population has every chance of recovery.

If you’re wondering what you can do to help, you can symbolically adopt a Vaquita through the Porpoise Conservation Society for as little as $25 USD (https://porpoise.org/gift/adopt-a-vaquita/). These funds go towards raising awareness and supporting research, education and conservation efforts.  The Porpoise Conservation Society also has a comprehensive list of small actions you can take which will have a big impact including just spreading the word and shopping for sustainable seafood at: https://porpoise.org/knowledge-base/can-save-vaquita-porpoise/.

You can help cetacean populations in our local waters as well by reporting your sightings to the BC Cetacean Sightings Network using the WhaleReport app, and by symbolically adopting a killer whale through the Wild Killer Whale Adoption Program.

Ocean Wise/NOAA/SR3

Aerial photos of killer whales like this one allow researchers to determine their body condition (and infer their health) using a technique called photogrammetry, which measures their length and width.