Once described by Jacques Cousteau as the world’s aquarium, the Gulf of California is one of the most diverse and productive seas on the planet. Nestled between the Baja Peninsula and the mainland of Mexico, its waters support a wide array of marine life and provide livelihoods for numerous fishing communities. Among its many denizens is the vaquita, the world’s smallest cetacean and the most endangered of the world’s 128 species of marine mammals.
The vaquita, distinguished by a dark ring around its eyes, is only found in northern portion of the gulf, and its numbers have declined rapidly in recent years. Since its listing as critically endangered in 1996, the vaquita population has decreased from 600 individuals to fewer than 30 today, due in large part to the illegal trade market for totoaba, a large fish whose swim bladders are thought to have medicinal value in China. Gillnets, which are used to catch the totoaba in large numbers, pose a threat to the remaining vaquita as they are susceptible to becoming entangled.
In an effort to protect the remaining vaquitas, LDF grantee Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (SSCS) will coordinate with the Mexican Navy and other NGOs to remove threats to the vaquita. In addition to patrolling the area for poachers, SSCS vessels will work tirelessly to remove fishing gear from the vaquita’s habitat, protecting not only the vaquita, but species such as leatherback turtles and the endangered scalloped hammerhead shark.
Sea Shepherd will continue to work with Mexican Government Agencies for stronger punishment for poachers, smugglers, and those found in possession of totoaba or other protected species and will also help fishermen move away from unsustainable industries and fishing practices. Scientific data collected from this operation will contribute to scientific reports that are focused on the effects of illegal fishing in the Upper Gulf of California.