Here’s What You Should Know About the Littlest Porpoise and What You Can Do to Help Them.

by Owen James Burke

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Above: The vaquita (Phocoena sinus). Photo: Flip Nicklin, Minden Pictures/Corbis.

The vaquita is a tiny endangered porpoise that exists within a narrow 1,500-square-mile patch of the Pacific Ocean around Baja, California with a dwindling population of less than 100 as of late 2014.

As is the case with many cetaceans that find themselves fouled in fishing nets, they’re not the target species. Oriental interest in the swim bladder of another endangered specimen, the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), has fishermen in Mexico setting nets in waters shared by the vaquita.


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Above: the totoaba, totuava (Totoaba macdonaldi). Photo: IPN via Proceso.

The totoaba’s swim bladder is sought as a traditional health food medicine in China–why, specifically from a fish that only exists 7,000 miles away, there is no ostensible reason–and it can fetch many thousands of dollars a piece, if successfully (and illegally) transported, generally through the United States. The totoaba, which is listed as “Critically Endangered” by CITES, the IUCN and the ESA, is also in trouble, and though it may not be as cuddly, also needs your help. The fish is often purposely mislabeled as white sea bass (which it resembles greatly) so that it can enter the US and its seafood markets. Do your best to make sure your white seabass isn’t totoaba by shopping at local seafood markets, or avoid purchasing white seabass.

As for the vaquita, throwing money at environmental causes isn’t always the answer. But, make a donation to Defenders of Wildlife in order to help educate Baja’s fishing communities and perhaps these cute little abashed cousins of ours won’t go the way of the baiji, or Chinese River Dolphin, the first cetacean to go extinct under the pressures of human overpopulation and resource mismanagement.

Defenders of Wildlife pledges that your donations will go toward:

  • Turning up the pressure in Washington, D.C. to increase enforcement of wildlife trafficking laws. Most of the illegal totoaba bladders are transported through the United States;
  • Working with U.S. and Mexican authorities to encourage talks between U.S., Mexico and China to work together to help stop the illegal trade of totoaba;
  • Helping to create educational materials on the vaquita and totoaba for coastal communities in the Upper Gulf of California to prevent illegal fishing practices;
  • Participating in global treaties like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES); and
  • Mobilizing concerned wildlife lovers to demand action to save the vaquita!

Read more about the plight of the vaquita at National Geographic, and head over to Defenders of Wildlife to make a donation.

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