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Vaquita porpoise of Cabo at serious risk

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Today, there are approximately 7.3 billion people on the planet – but only 60 vaquitas. Down from 100 just two years ago the species is “critically endangered”.

And as the vaquita – the world’s smallest porpoise – plunges toward extinction, scientists have a tough decision ahead of them: to attempt a super risky captive breeding programme or not?


Found only in the waters of the Sea of Cortés, the vaquita has seen its population drop by 92 percent in less than 20 years as the tiny porpoises suffocate to death one-by-one in gillnets. Now, scientists with the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) are cautiously moving forward on a once unthinkable option: captive breeding.


“We have no idea whether it is feasible to find, capture and maintain vaquitas in captivity much less whether they will reproduce,” said Barbara Taylor, one of the world’s foremost experts on the vaquita with NOAA. “The uncertainties are large.”

Rafael Pacchiano, head of SEMARNAT (Mexico’s Environment Secretariat) echoes these views - ”The assisted breeding of the vaquita is one of the options we’re considering. It is an idea whose feasibility we’re evaluating . . . we’ve been instructed by the president to do the impossible in protecting this species,” said Rafael Pacchiano.


Captive breeding of the vaquita, if it ever happens, would be a last-ditch and incredibly risky action, according to scientists. Omar Vidal, head of the World Wildlife Fund Mexico, also warns that it is quite possible that captured vaquitas would soon die outside their habitat. Hel is opposed to the idea on the grounds that it would be too risky. “. . . we simply cannot gamble with killing some while experimenting. Every single vaquita counts!” –


However, Taylor is more optimiitic, citing the Guadalupe fur seal and the northern elephant seal, both of which were saved by Mexico and were closer to extinction than the vaquita.

Whatever action is taken, it is clear that the vaquitas need all the help they can get. And they need it quickly as females only give birth to calves once every two years.


As the world’s smallest porpoise and cetacean, vaquitas (Phocoena sinus) are shy and retiring with eye patches that have led them to be described fondly as the ‘pandas of the sea.’ These rarely-seen porpoises also have the smallest range of any cetacean, only inhabiting about 2,300 square kilometres of marine waters in the Sea of Cortés.

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