No other marine animal has seen their numbers so dramatically drop in the last decade like the vaquita. The Earth’s smallest cetacean can only be found in the Gulf of California and have seen numbers rapidly decrease in the last few centuries due to commercial fishing.
The vaquita’s demise is due to another species of marine life that shares the same habitat, the totoaba fish. The totoaba, which are critically endangered themselves, are illegally caught using gillnets that are extremely destructive to all marine wildlife. The fishermen want the totoaba for the swim bladders which can go for $46,000 per kilogram in China . The swim bladders are believed to have medicinal purposes.
Now, a new study estimates that there could be fewer than 19 vaquitas left on planet Earth.
Researchers have been tracking the vaquita population since 2011 using sightings and clicks to make their calculations. The animal communicates using clicks to echolocate and communicate on a constant basis which allows researchers to track and identify individual animals.
The study, which was published in Royal Society Open Science, found that the average number of clicks detected each day fell by 62.3% from 2016 to 2017 and a further 70.1% from 2017 to 2018. As well, the researchers believe that there is a 99% certainty that the vaquita numbers have declined 98.6% since tracking began in 2011.
The staggering decline shows how close the species is to extinction, and that drastic measures are absolutely needed to allow the species to survive.
Gill nets, which are essentially walls of nets put in place to capture anything that attempts to swim through it, have been illegal in the Gul of California since March 2015 but fishers regularly ignore the ban and install the nets to catch totoaba fish.
Sea Shepherd Conservation Society have been actively attempting to push fisherman out of the Gulf and protect the vaquita but the battle has become more and more treacherous with so much on the line.
The researchers do admit that due to the data for the study being from August of 2018, the vaquita population could actually be lower than 19 at this point but yet they still had hope for the future of the species. Further research found that the remaining individuals were all in good health with two calves.
Eva Hidalgo, science department coordinator at Sea Shepherd Conservation Society told The Guardian, said, “The important takeaway is that they’re still out there. No matter how low the numbers are, there’s still hope for the species if we manage to keep them safe. Sea Shepherd is doing as much as possible to ensure the area remains net-free. In recent years we have seen two vaquita calves, so they can be saved. As long as there is one vaquita left, we are going to continue to fight for them.”