- Common Name
- vaquita, Gulf of California harbor porpoise, cochito
- Genus Species
- Phocoena sinus ("porpoise of the gulf")
- Vaquitas have small, strong bodies with a rounded head and no beak. They have black patches around their eye and lips and small spade-shaped teeth. Vaquitas also have triangle-shaped dorsal fins in the middle of their backs, which are taller and wider than in other porpoises. These fins might allow vaquitas to reduce their body temperatures in warm water (NOAA).
A vaquita's color is a complex but subdued pattern of various shades of gray, often appearing olive or tawny brown in adults. Calves are typically darker than adults.
- The vaquita generally reaches a length of about 144 cm (4.7 ft.). Mature males tend to be smaller than females. The largest vaquita ever measured was a mature female that was 1.5 m (5 ft.) long.
- Adults weigh up to 46.5 kg (102.3 lbs.); newborn calves weigh more than 7.5 kg (17 lbs.)
- Vaquitas feed on a variety of benthic fishes, squids, and crustaceans.
- Life Span
- To at least 21 years
- The vaquita lives only in the shallow waters of the upper Gulf of California, Mexico, where the Colorado River empties into the Gulf. Vaquita rarely venture beyond this small area; they have the most restricted range of any cetacean. The core area of occupancy is only around 3,000 square kilometers.
- The Vaquita lives in a relatively shallow (<50 m), turbid and dynamic marine environment.
- Global: The total population in 2017 numbered around 30. The estimated number of Vaquitas in 1997 was 567.
- IUCN: Critically Endangered since 2008
CITES: Appendix I
- Vaquitas are the smallest porpoise and among the smallest cetaceans.
- The area of highest remaining numbers is centered at Rocas Consag, some 40 km northeast of the town of San Felipe, Baja California.
- Genetic and morphological data suggest that vaquitas are most closely related to porpoises in South America. Genetic data suggest divergence from two sister taxa (Burmeister’s porpoise, Phocoena spinipinnis and spectacled porpoise Australophocaena dioptrica) in the Pleistocene (i.e., at least 2.5 million years ago).
Ecology and Conservation
The vaquita is one of the world's most endangered cetaceans. Its tiny, isolated population makes it highly vulnerable to human activities.
Vaquita often are caught in nets set to catch other animals. This "incidental take" is the primary reason for the vaquita's endangered status. Gulf of California fisheries include shrimp trawling and gillnet fisheries for sharks. (A gillnet is a large flat fishing net that entangles fish as it hangs vertically in the water.) Each year, 25 to 30 vaquita drown in gillnets.
Vaquita survival is closely related to the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi,) fishery. Like the vaquita, the totoaba lives only in the northern Gulf of California. Vaquita are easily entangled in the larger holes of the totoaba nets. In 1990, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) determined that the totoaba fishery is responsible for the vaquita's endangered status.
Totoaba is itself an endangered species. For many years, totoaba fishing continued with no controls. Even small-scale totoaba fishing was very difficult to monitor. Mexico banned totoaba fishing in 1975. The U.S. has banned imports of totoaba since 1977. But demand for totoaba as a food fish keeps the illegal fishery profitable.
Laws in both the United States and Mexico protect the vaquita. It was placed on Mexico's endangered species list in 1978. The U.S. added the vaquita to its endangered species list in 1985. A vaquita sanctuary was established in the northern Gulf area. But as long as illegal totoaba fishing continues, vaquitas will continue to drown in gillnets. If people continue to buy totoaba, not only will this fish become extinct, so will the vaquita.
Jefferson, T.J. Leatherwood, S. and M.A. Webber. FAO Species Identification Guide. Marine Mammals of the World. Rome. FAO, 1993.
Leatherwood, Stephen, and Reeves, Randall R. The Sierra Club Handbook of Whales and Dolphins. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1983.
Nowak, Ronald M. (ed.). Walker's Mammals of the World. Vol. II. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991.
Parker, S. (ed.). Grizmek's Encyclopedia of Mammals. Vol. IV. New York: McGraw-Hill Publishing Co., 1990.
Reeves, R. R., Stewart, B.S., Clapman, P.J., and J.A. Powell (Peter Folkens illustrator). National Audubon Society: Guide to Marine Mammals of the World. New York: Random House, 2002.
Rojas-Bracho, L. & Taylor, B.L. 2017. Phocoena sinus. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2017: e.T17028A50370296. ttp://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2017-2.RLTS.T17028A50370296.en. Downloaded on 27 September 2018.
NOAA Fisheries – Vaquita Species Profile. https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/vaquita/. Downloaded on 27 September 2018.