La Vaquita Marina

San Felipe, Baja, Mexico

They look like tiny Ninja whales, cloaked in shadows and wearing dark masks. They are Phocoena sinus, the Gulf of California harbor porpoise or vaquita marina.

The vaquita has the most limited distribution of any cetacean and is found exclusively in the northern Sea of Cortez. Scientists were only recently introduced to this specie. In 1958 three vaquita skulls were found on the beaches near San Felipe. By 1980, with the help of Centro de Estudios de Desiertos Y Océanos (CEDO) at Puerto Peñasco, the number of whole specimens recovered numbered five. Since then, because of more modern fishing techniques, the mortally rate of this beautiful creature has grown alarmingly.

Vaquita MarinaThe vaquita is the smallest of all cetaceans, measuring four to five feet when fully grown and weighing about 120 lbs. Females tend to be a little larger than the males. They are seldom seen on the surface of the water. Sightings are rare, being more a reward for the diligent field biologist than a gift to the camera-carrying tourist. There are only an estimated 200 to 800 vaquitas remaining and it's been suggested the population is declining by as much as 20 percent per annum. Vaquitas are not intentionally hunted but at least 25 a year are entangled and die in fishing nets set for other species. Totoaba, another endangered specie, was officially protected by a ban in 1975. But fishermen in places like El Golfo, Sonora and San Felipe largely ignored the ban. It was their 10 and 12 inch diameter mesh gillnets that often captured and drowned vaquitas.

San Felipe is part of the Upper Gulf Biosphere Reserve, which is designed to protect vaquitas as well as other depleted species. However, 40% of the vaquitas range outside of the Reserve's protection. And "reserve" designation has not restricted gill net fisheries.

In 1996 the Mexican government established the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA). Its first act was to estimate the existing population of the vaquita at 567. Then an analysis was done on the various factors affecting vaquita mortality and it was determined that incidental fisheries fatalities (ie: net entanglement) were the greatest immediate threat to the specie. CIRVA studied available data on the vaquita, fishing activities and zones. They made recommendation for the recuperation of the vaquita specie that included eliminating vaquita by-catch as soon as possible, extend the southern boundary of the Reserve to encompass the entire range of the vaquita and to ban gill-netting and trawlers in the enlarged Reserve.

Unfortunately a ban on gill netting and trawlers in the upper Gulf would leave no alternatives to many fishing-dependent families in the area. CEDO held workshops with fishermen from the three principle fishing communities --El Golfo, San Felipe and Puerto Peñasco, sharing scientific data on the vaquita, polling them about their willingness to change their fishing techniques or explore other avenues to ensure their livelihood. A majority of the fishermen seemed willing to change the way they fished.

CIRVA is now active in bringing about legal changes that will more rapidly ensure the vaquita's protection and expand the size of the Reserve.

Plaque in San Felipe for the Vaquita Marina
Plaque reflecting San Felipe's commitment
to preserving the vaquita marina.

On the other hand a statement published in November of 2001 by the Camara Nacional de la Industria Pesquera (CANAINPES) of Puerto Penasco showed less commitment to the agenda of the Reserve. They complained that the curtailing of their shrimping grounds was too sudden, that they did not receive sufficient notice before the prohibitions of the Protected Area was ratified. They cited their heritage as fishermen and sons of fishermen, implying a right to shrimp anywhere they chose. When it became apparent the Biosphere protection would be enforced, they asked for permission to shrimp in the prohibited zone from October through mid-January, citing the illegal and unpunished activities of San Felipe and El Golfo fishermen as precedent.

According to a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), "about 70 percent of the world's marine fish stocks are fully to heavily exploited, overexploited, depleted or slowly recovering." Although this situation is clearly unsustainable, the commercial fishing industry appears to be doing little to mend its ways.

Reporter Tom Knudson of the Sacramento Bee explained the problem of free market environmentalism. "Fishing is supposed to be done conservatively to protect stocks," he wrote. "But in poverty-stricken Mexico, another rule applies: If you will buy it, they will kill it. They will liquidate their sea."

The vaquita marinas' future is in doubt. Some steps are being taken by both Mexico and the United States to prevent their extinction. But these steps may be too little too late against tradition that never questions itself or the ultimate results of its actions.

Below are some links to more information about the vaquita marina.