SAVING THE VAQUITA

With the likely extinction of the baiji, or Yangtze River dolphin, the vaquita became the world’s most endangered marine mammal. The baiji’s plight sounded a sobering alarm call for increased vigilance to save the vaquita. Known as “little cow” in Spanish, the vaquita is the smallest of the world’s six porpoise species. With a population reduced to fewer than 150 individuals — and as many as 40 vaquitas drowned in fishing nets annually — this rarest of all cetaceans could be driven extinct as soon as the next couple of years.

In October 2008, in response to pressure from the Center and other international scientific and conservation organizations, the Mexican government announced a conservation plan for the vaquita that essentially boils down to paying fisherman not to fish in the species’ home range. There’s only a very short window to see if this plan actually works.

The vaquita inhabits Mexican waters, yet fish and shrimp caught in the Gulf of California are regularly imported into the United States. We’ve launched an effort to ban swordfish importation from countries, including Mexico, that don’t adequately protect marine mammals. And even though fishing practices remain the most immediate threat to the vaquita, the species also suffers by living in a habitat that is today a shadow of its former self. The Colorado River, once a raging torrent that fed a lush floodplain at the delta, has been reduced to a trickle by dams and water diversions to neighboring southwestern states. We’ve filed several lawsuits and continue to advocate for water flows that reach the delta and keep species like the vaquita afloat.