The Mexican government recently adopted important modifications to their fishing rules in an effort to save the vaquita.

Vaquita. Pictures in the wild are rare. (Photo: Paula Olsen)

The vaquita is the world’s smallest (seldom exceeding four feet in length and 100 pounds) and rarest cetacean with less than 200 left alive. It lives solely in the Sea of Cortex in the upper Gulf of Mexico an area surrounded by desert on three sides.

The main threat to the vaquita is as incidental bycatch in fishing gear, especially gillnets set for shrimp by fishers in the towns of El Golfo de Santa Clara, San Felipe and Puerto Penasco. The majority of shrimp caught in the Sea of Cortez is destined for the U.S. market where it is the nation’s most popular seafood.

Vaquita bycatch.

The estimated mortality from gillnet fishing is at least 39 (and maybe as many as 84) vaquitas per year, which is shockingly unsustainable, considering that the total population is only estimated to be 200 or so individuals. The estimated minimum number of vaquita needed to maintain a reproductively fit population is fifty.

Vaquita bycatch.

    The new rules will require a three-year progressive substitution of porpoise safe nets to replace drift gillnets, one of the main fishing gears in which vaquitas die as incidental bycatch.

The new net is a small driftnet adapted so it can be deployed from small, artisanal fishing vessels (“pangas”). It has a number of features that exclude capturing smaller and non-target species, and engineering modifications that include a turtle excluder device and rollers and light weight materials that minimize seabed damage.

Vaquitas, A truly tragic catch. (Photo: Omar Vidal)

    A key to making this conservation measure work is for the Mexican government and other organizations to get buy-in from from local fishermen by providing training in the use of the new light trawls and temporary compensation programs as the fishermen live on their daily sales.

      Bycatch is a problem for cetaceans everywhere. An estimated 300,000 are drowned every year in fishing gear set or drifting lost across the oceans, seas and rivers of the globe. This equates to one cetacean death every two minutes somewhere in the world.


      to learn more about helping the vaquita.

    Shout Out: Wildlife Extra.