Priority Species - Marine Vaquita
Efforts to save from extinction a Mexican porpoise.
Within the Biosphere Reserve of the High Gulf of California and the Colorado River Delta, lives in its natural environment the
Vaquita porpoise, one of the smallest and most threatened cetaceans in the world, and the only endemic marine mammal in Mexico.
Of restricted distribution –it only inhabits a very small area in the Upper Gulf of California - today there are less than 600
individuals of this species alive.
Fifty years ago this species was unknown to science, and today, it is listed as "in critical danger of extinction" in
the Red Book of the World Conservation Union (UICN).
According to Lorenzo Rojas, President of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA, in Spanish), its
very difficult to see these mammals in their natural habitat. Nonetheless, Rojas has taken part in different cruises with
professional observers to estimate the species abundance. "In spite of their scarce population, there is no evidence
whatsoever, either genetic or demographic, which indicates that the Vaquita is condemned to extinction", says Rojas.
Although its a species that is naturally less abundant, the main threat to its survival, and the reason it is considered in
danger of extinction, are gill fishing nets. Although Mexican laws prohibit marine mammal fishing since 1992, they have not
been able to prevent the threat that nets destined for the extraction of other species represent for this invaluable cetacean.
Such is the case of the fishing nets used to capture totoaba, an enormous fish with high commercial value. Despite a decree in
the 1970’s which established a total fishing prohibition of that fish species, it continued illegally until 1992, when a decree
was issued to prohibit the use of nets with a mesh smaller than 25 centimeters or 9.8 inches.
For years, the need to reduce the fishing intensity in the Upper Gulf of California and Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve
as well as the implementation of alternative fishing techniques to diminish the possibilities of the Vaquita’s extinction, have
been pointed out. Other employment options and productive activities for the region’s fishermen are being explored in order to
reduce over-fishing and the threat to the Vaquita.
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC * FEBRUARY 2003.
Frequently asked questions
- Why is it important to organize a campaign to save the Vaquita?
Mexico has the privilege of having this species -the Marine Vaquita - within its territory. It’s an
exclusively native species to the Upper Gulf of California, which means that it cannot be found elsewhere
in the planet. Since 1990, the Vaquita has been classified as a "species in danger of extinction"
and recently as "in critical danger of extinction", by the World Conservation Union (UICN). In
Mexico, it is listed under a special regulation called NOM 059 ECOL 1994 as a species in danger of
- Is it still possible to save the Vaquita with its remaining population?
The Vaquita has developed in deep isolation, which enables it to face a population decrease without losing
its genetic characteristics. Experience shows that many endangered species can recover their population if
the causes that threaten them are faced and significantly decreased. The best example is that of the grey
whale that was an endangered species due to whaling activities and by prohibiting such activities, its
population has fully recovered.
- There are some who maintain that the Vaquita is already extinct, does it make any sense to do something for this species?
The best proof that it still exists is the fact that specimens continue being caught in fishermen’s nets,
which also demonstrates its presence in the region and the threats it faces. Marine Vaquita is a species
that cannot be easily observed, since it flees when boats appear and remains under water for several
minutes without having to come out for air. A more reliable and recent evaluation of the Vaquita
population estimates only 567 specimens exist. This figure is within a statistical reliability range that
locates the reliability interval at about 177 to 1,074 Vaquita specimens. It is estimated that between 39
to 84 Marine Vaquitas die every year as by-catches.
- What is the main cause of death of the Vaquita?
The main threat to the Vaquita is by-catch mortality in gill fishing nets and habitat alteration through the
use of trawler nets in the buffer zone (area that surrounds the site where the largest number of Vaquitas is
concentrated) of the "Upper Gulf of California and the Colorado River Delta Biosphere Reserve".
Marine Vaquitas need to come out to the surface to breathe, but they are trapped in these fishing nets and
drown. It has been noted that Marine Vaquitas are also trapped during other fishing activities for catching
Spanish mackerel, silver perch, shrimp and other species, are used.
- Which measures are being proposed to save the Vaquita?
Experience has shown that endangered species can recover their population if the causes that threaten them
are faced and significantly decreased. The best example thereof is the gray whale that was an endangered
species due to whaling activities and by prohibiting such activities its population has fully recovered. In
the case of the Vaquita, the limit of by-catch mortality estimated to prevent extinction amounts to 0.2%
annually, that is, a zero by-catch mortality rate has to be guaranteed in order to achieve the species’
Eliminating risk factors for Vaquitas is a serious issue, since it has enormous political, cultural, social
and economic implications in local communities. Nonetheless, it can be achieved by implementing fishing
regulations and enforcing the law. By enforcing these instruments, coastal fishermen are willing to stop
using nets that catch a larger number of Vaquitas (gill nets with mesh sizes larger than three inches) since
they could catch shrimp with alternative nets and have a much smaller number of by-catches than boats. It is
estimated that in this way there would be an immediate 65% reduction in Vaquita mortality. Lastly, it is also
important to modify the present boundaries of the Upper Gulf of California Biosphere Reserve in order to
include every habitat in the entire area of distribution of this species, since presently, its boundaries
only include 60% of its area, the remaining 40% being unprotected.
- Which is the proposal for affected communities and sectors?
Our proposal is based on an understanding of cultural, social and economic aspects that allow redirecting
fishing activities toward the use of fishing technologies that are not harmful for the Marine Vaquita and
its habitat, as well as on furthering other alternative economic activities that satisfy growing demands of
regional social development.
The socio-economic strategy intends to promote economically feasible, socially and culturally acceptable,
lawfully permissible and environmentally sustainable alternative productive activities.
To attain this purpose, it is necessary for any proposal to comply with the following criteria:
- Economic alternatives should address the expectations and needs of the interested
parties, providing equal or larger benefits than present productive activities;
- All parties interested or affected should actively participate in the design of
these alternatives; and
- Plans should become a reality as soon as possible, with an orderly project
execution and expected results that are relevant and evident for the interested
parties, within the scheduled times.
To insure success, it is necessary for the benefits of the Strategy to become evident to the interested parties in
the shortest time possible, allowing the efforts to continue. With this in mind, projects that result in a rapid
yield and that have a proven cost-benefit efficiency will be promoted during the Strategy’s early implementation
phases. It is also crucial for fishermen to be aware of the benefits of conservation, to be convinced to change
their way to obtain income and to become sensitized, to be trained and informed on environmental aspects, as well
as those which the Strategy intends to improve.
Direct participation of the inhabitants and their social and labor organizations in the design of these alternatives
will be supported and promoted. Furthermore, the population will be informed as regards different private and
governmental sources of financing and support to increase the viability of businesses and income sources that will
On the other hand, the organizations involved and committed with the Strategy will make sure that the national and
international finance organizations that support sustainable development become acquainted with the Strategy and put
at the disposal of the interested parties, relevant information to have access to such funds. Lastly, a fundamental
requirement is to have the Government’s political will, since the Strategy can only be implemented through the
coordinated actions of several agencies at the three governmental levels and with the active participation of all
social actors involved.
Information obtained from the following web page: www.vaquitamarina.org