Brink of Extinction: A Technological Approach to Saving the Last Vaquita Porpoises

Gustavo Cárdenas Hinojosa and Antonella Wilby deploy the SphereCam in the Sea of Cortez. Photo by Francesca Wilby.

San Felipe, Baja California, Mexico — In the silty blue waters of the northern Sea of Cortez, off the coast of the small fishing town of San Felipe, lives the smallest and rarest marine mammal in the world. Vaquita marina, whose name loosely translates to “little cow of the sea,” is a member of the porpoise family and holds the unfortunate title of the world’s most endangered cetacean. Fewer than 100 of this captivating creature remain, with recent population estimates placing that number at closer to 50 individuals.

The vaquita’s plight is not isolated. Its fate is closely tied to that of the totoaba, another critically-endangered species in the Gulf of California. The totoaba fish is being illegally fished to extinction for its swim bladder, which is highly prized on the Chinese black market for theoretical (and unproven) “medicinal purposes,” and sells for thousands of dollars per kilogram. Thousands of totoaba are caught in gillnets, stripped of their swim bladders and left to rot, while the vaquita get entangled in those same gillnets and drown.

Unless vaquita mortality in gillnets is completely eliminated, scientists predict the tiny porpoise will be extinct by 2018. Luckily, as of April 2015 a complete gillnet ban was enacted in the vaquita habitat, halting the gillnet fishing for fish and shrimp that is the primary industry in Gulf towns like San Felipe. However, this ban does not deter the illegal totoaba fishers, who continue to illegally set gillnets in the area. (Vaquita Porpoise Faces Imminent Extinction–Can It Be Saved?)

Not a single underwater photo of the vaquita exists

Complicating the conservation effort is the lack of photos and videos of the vaquita alive in their habitat. Due to their dwindling numbers and shy nature they are rarely sighted, and the only photos and videos of live vaquita that —> Read More