World’s rarest marine mammal on the edge of extinction

Last year the El Paso Zoo delivered over 18,000 letters to
Mexican President Obrador asking for his help in saving the vaquita.

Over the past few years I have been involved in conservation efforts to save the vaquita, a species of porpoise endemic to the Gulf of California. Averaging 150 cm or 140 cm in length, it is the smallest of all living cetaceans. Today, the species is on the brink of extinction.  Last year in collaboration with the Living Desert Zoo and the Aquarium of the Pacific, the El Paso Zoo sent Mexican President Obrador over 18,000 signed letters from our guests asking that he provide strong leadership for vaquita conservation efforts.   The latest information we have now is how Mexico has committed resources to using photo ID to estimate the number of vaquitas surviving in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez (Upper Gulf of California).  

Few people know about the emergency efforts underway to save this very small species of porpoise, found only in one small area of the Sea of Cortez in the Upper Gulf of Mexico.   Vaquita numbers have decreased dramatically to less than ten animals as a result of commercial fishing in the area where they have been caught and drowned in gillnets.   To help increase awareness of their plight and to encourage people to help save them, the El Paso Zoo has supported the AZA SAFE and the Vaquita Action Plan.    AZA SAFE stands for “Saving Animals from Extinction” and focuses the collective expertise within our accredited zoos and aquariums and leverages their massive audiences to save species.  At the same time, SAFE will build capacity to increase direct conservation spending, as well as our members’ impact on saving species through work in the field, in our zoos and aquariums, and through public engagement. We have done it before. Some species exist only because of the efforts of aquariums and zoos.  They include two species currently living at the El Paso Zoo, the Mexican wolf and the Przewalski’s horse.

The vaquita lives only in the wild which makes saving it from extinction a much greater challenge compared to efforts to save other species on the brink of extinction.  Before the Mexican wolf went extinct in the wild during the late 1970s, the last known wild wolves were captured in Mexico and moved to breeding facilities.   It seems unlikely that such an approach would work for the vaquita since they have never survived for very long in captivity.    

To help save the species from falling victim to gillnets used within the fishing industry for the capture of other species, Mexico and United States have committed to intensify bilateral cooperation to protect the critically endangered vaquita marina porpoise, including through the following actions:

• Mexico will make permanent a ban on the use of gillnets in all fisheries throughout the range of the vaquita in the upper Gulf of California;

• Both countries will increase cooperation and enforcement efforts to immediately halt the illegal fishing for and illegal trade in totoaba swim bladders;

• Both countries will redouble efforts, in collaboration with international experts, to develop alternative fishing gear to gillnets that does not result in the entanglement of vaquita and establish “vaquita-safe” fisheries; and

• Both countries will establish and implement a long-term program to remove and permanently dispose of illegal and derelict fishing gear from vaquita habitat in the upper Gulf of California.

To help save the vaquita zoo guests are encouraged to:

– Become a member of the El Paso Zoological Society.

– Use your Seafood Watch Guide or app to help you choose sustainable seafood.

– Plan to participate in International Vaquita Day on July 18, 2020.

– Don’t eat Fish Maw soup! This soup is made with the swim bladder of the endangered totoaba, which vaquita are often collateral damage of illegal fishing.

– Talk with your family and friends about the vaquita.

– Support organizations which focus on marine conservation and research.

  • Story reprinted from the El Paso Zoo Conservation Education Blog – Follow the El Paso Zoo Conservation Education blog for updates on all of the Zoo’s conservation efforts. The simple act of following this blog is an easy way to show your support for conservation in El Paso and around the world.

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