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Most people might guess that the most endangered marine mammal would be the blue whale, or perhaps the narwhal, or other well-known endangered species. But, in fact the most endangered marine mammal on Earth is a small Mexican porpoise people might not even know existed — the vaquita (meaning “little cow” in Spanish). Vaquita sightings are very rare. Scientists believe there are only about 60 of them left in the world, and challenges they face threaten to make them disappear altogether.

Vaquita were discovered in the late 1950s and can be found only in the upper Gulf of California in northern Mexico just south of the United States border. There has been a steep reduction in the species’ numbers, from about 550 vaquitas in 1997 to just 60 in 2015 — a 92 per cent drop in less than 20 years. These small porpoises are on the brink of extinction; their single biggest threat is gillnet fishing.

The vaquita is the world's smallest cetacean. Its name means "little cow" in Spanish.

The vaquita is the world’s smallest cetacean. Its name means “little cow” in Spanish.

Vaquita get caught in gillnets used to target commercially valuable species of fish and are being decimated. In 2015, the government of Mexico declared a temporary ban on the use of gillnets in vaquita habitat areas, but illegal poaching continues. Without further protection, it is reasonable to expect that this porpoise will go extinct during the course of our lifetime.

Fortunately, conservation scientists around the world are working together to raise awareness about the vaquita. The second Saturday of July has been declared International Save the Vaquita Day, and the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre celebrated by hosting porpoise expert and president of the Porpoise Conservation Society Dr. Anna Hall, as well as volunteers from the Porpoise Conservation Society. You can watch Dr. Hall’s talk here.

Interpreter Derek Jang presenting Dr. Anna Hall International Save the Vaquita Day at Vancouver Aquarium.

Interpretation specialist Derek Jang with Dr. Anna Hall International Save the Vaquita Day at the Vancouver Aquarium.

The plight of the remaining vaquita is dire, but it is not too late to prevent the extinction of these unique porpoises. The Vancouver Aquarium is proud to join the call to action in order to protect this species for future generations. Vaquita are not the only marine animals threatened by unsustainable fishing practices —remember to look for the Vancouver Aquarium Ocean Wise symbol next to seafood items to make ocean-friendly seafood choices. Visit www.oceanwise.ca for more information on sustainable seafood.

To learn more about International Save the Vaquita Day, check out www.vivavaquita.org, or visit the Porpoise Conservation Society’s page www.porpoise.org/vaquita

Aquablog post by Derek Jang, interpretation specialist at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre. 

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