The pair of stubby-nose porpoises surfaces as though parting a glossy veil. The vaquitas take a quick gulp of air, and then just as suddenly as they appeared, they sink back into the Sea of Cortez’s murky waters.
By James Navarro
© Chris Johnson/Earthocean/vaquita.tv
Everything about them—from the mask-like rings around their eyes to the dark gray color of their bodies—underscores their shy, elusive nature. Perhaps that’s why the world’s smallest porpoise has been slipping closer to extinction right before our eyes.
Scientists fear that the five-foot-long vaquitas, which were indentified just over a half-century ago in the waters between the Baja peninsula and the Mexican mainland, won’t last another 20 years. Lorenzo Rojas Bracho, a marine biologist with Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology, is part of a team of scientists who have been studying vaquitas for the past decade—counting their numbers from boats and listening to their calls, or clicks, using undersea microphones. But for Rojas the past 10 years may have seemed more like a long vigil than a census, as vaquita numbers have steadily withered away to just 250 animals—down from some 600 in the mid-1990s.
“Fishing is the main threat to the vaquita’s survival,” Rojas says. “It’s a species that’s going extinct because of human interference.”
Most of these “little cows”—the English translation of “vaquitas”—have been claimed by commercial fishing. The porpoises get tangled and drown in nets beside captured sea bass, mackerel and shrimp, which are prized by seafood markets and restaurants in Mexico, the United States and abroad. But unlike cattle, these endangered porpoises are worthless to fishermen, who toss the dead bodies thoughtlessly out to sea.
“The only way to save the vaquita is to stop fishing where it lives,” says Juan Carlos Cantu Guzman, director of Defenders of Wildlife’s Mexico office. A biologist by training, Cantu is lobbying Mexican authorities to strengthen protections inside the 500-square-mile vaquita refuge area.
Established in 2005 by the Mexican government, the marine reserve offers little security for the porpoises. “It is a refuge in name only,” Cantu says. “The government just last year declined authorization for shrimp trawlers to fish inside the refuge, and gillnetting is still happening nearby, where vaquitas also live.”
Learn more about this endangered porpoise. 
Until recently, the shrimping season—from September to March—lured hundreds of fishing boats to the preserve and its surrounding waters. “The situation got so bad that nobody knows how many boats or gillnets were out there,” Rojas says.
Fortunately, the efforts of Cantu and other conservationists are starting to turn the tide. In 2007, the Mexican government began buying out local fishermen, encouraging them to lay down their nets and use their boats for ecotourism instead. Change, however, comes slowly here, says Cantu, noting that the early program was plagued by fraud. Some fishermen used the cash from trading in their permits to renovate their boats and to buy more effective and deadly gear.
Today the program can claim some success, however, with the removal of nearly 230 fishing vessels from the vaquita’s waters. Rojas credits a new requirement that fishermen submit detailed business plans proving how their buy-out money will be spent. Still some 400 to 500 fishermen are holding out, he says, because fishing here isn’t just a job—it’s a tradition handed down for generations. But the global economic downturn, falling seafood prices and overharvested fisheries may soon chase even the most devout fishermen off the seas.
“It’s getting tougher to make a good living from catching fish,” Rojas says. “Many have told us they don’t want their kids to be fishermen.”
Meanwhile, vaquitas are still dying at an alarming rate and conservation groups are calling for a government moratorium on fishing in the vaquita’s sole habitat. “If gillnetting doesn’t stop soon,” says Cantu, “vaquitas may eventually pay the highest price of all.”