Although the male and female Vaquita appear similar in size, adult females are about 55 inches in length while adult males are about 53 inches in length. From birth to adulthood they weigh 60-120 lbs. Vaquita travel in groups of 7 -10 individuals, in pairs or singly. Their coloring consists of various shades of grey with unique markings such as black eye rings, black lips and chin.
Vaquita sexually mature between 3-6 years of age. After about 10 months of gestation they give birth to a single calf that is born between February and April. Births occur every 1 to 2 years. Calves are nursed for about 6-8 months until they can fend for themselves. Vaquita eat small schooling fish, squid, and octopus. They are extremely elusive as most of their activity occurs below the surface, which is why available information about them is minimal. Most of the information has come from rare observations, and dead specimens found in nets.
Vaquita were discovered in the late 1950’s and it was presumed that their populations were already in decline. Since then, their numbers have rapidly decreased. The core cause for the decline is due to the use of gill-nets, which drown Vaquita. Fishermen use gill-nets to catch a variety of fish, but specifically target blue shrimp, which is in high demand for consumption. Much of this demand is coming from southern California where fine dining is prominent. Unfortunately, the demise of the Vaquita has been compounded by the use of gillnets to catch shrimp for US markets and to also catch endangered totoaba to harvest their swim bladders for Southeast Asia markets, specifically China.
The Totoaba is an endangered fish that shares the same home range as the Vaquita. The swim bladder of a Totoaba may be harvested and then smuggled through the US and into China. Swim bladders fetch between $5000-$10,000 a piece. They are believed to enhance fertility and are made into a soup that costs up to $25,000 a bowl. It is also framed to be exhibited as a symbol of wealth. This demand has proven to be a profitable business for Mexico’s organized crime organizations and shows no signs of stopping.
Recently, Mexico implemented a 2-year ban on the use of gill-nets in the Vaquita Sanctuary. This ban was established to examine if Vaquita populations would rise or fall with the regulation. Ultimately, a permanent ban is the only sure method to improve Vaquita numbers. Mexico has offered alternative fishing gear that does not allow larger creatures (e.g. Vaquita) in, except for the targeted species like shrimp. Mexico plans to enforce this ban by patrolling the area with military drones and ships. It will take the international community to maintain pressure on the Mexican government in order to ensure the recovery of the Vaquita.
This project will document the human effort to save a species. There is still hope for the Vaquita.