The rarest marine mammal is one most people likely have not heard of. The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) has been on the verge of extinction but may be staging a comeback. The little guy is the smallest of the dolphin family.
According to Britannica the vaquita inhabits a small portion of the Gulf of California off Baja California. Numbers have been declining sharply and as of 2018 it was estimated that about 18 remained.
The latest news is a little better. Vaquita numbers had been shrinking up to 45 percent per year. But the numbers appear to have stabilized and remained the same since 2021. According to Adventure.com at least one researcher says this is the best vaquita news in 30 years. At least one baby has been observed.
Vaquitas are about 5 feet long and are by far the smallest toothed whale. They are often caught in gill nets. Gill nets are deadly to a number of whales, seals and porpoises too. As a result the once ubiquitous nets have been banned in many places or strictly controlled. Mexico outlawed their use in the Gulf of California in 2017 but compliance with the law has been slow.
Efforts to save the rarest marine mammal started around the year 2000 but were slow in coming to fruition. The recent development of a “vaquita safe” shrimp net may be a major help. Another problem is that vaquita conservation must be a “top down” conservation effort. Vaquitas have no commercial value. Conserving them, moreover, can be an economic negative for local fisherman. They are expected to switch from gill nets and not fish in areas where vaquitas are protected. There is little reason for many locals to save vaquitas.
“Top Down” versus “People Centric” conservation is a difficult problem in protecting endangered species. Conservation by fiat from government is often strongly opposed. Conservation that takes into account the needs and welfare of the local population works more successfully. The World Wildlife Federation, among others, is adapting a people centric model specifically for tigers. In another example, people in part of the snow leopard’s range are being encouraged to take up beekeeping to lesson conflicts with the cats.