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Vanishing vaquita

Tom Jefferson/St Andrews University/PA

Home > Disasters > Vanishing vaquita

Icon for Vaquita

Walking into an extinction with open eyes

The vaquita (Phocoena sinus), a species of porpoise that can only be found on the northern end of the Gulf of California, is currently the most endangered marine mammal.

The vaquita is one of 8,722 species worldwide listed as critically endangered or at “extremely high risk of extinction.” As both a predator and prey species, vaquitas serve as important food sources for top predators and keep populations of smaller species such as fish, squid and crustaceans in check, promoting a healthy balance in the region's interdependent food web.

Key Numbers


individuals left in the wild


population decline in the past decade

However, unlike many other species on this inauspicious list, the main driver of its disappearance is relatively clear: fishing nets. Although the vaquita is not a commercial species, it is collateral damage of poaching and illegal trade of the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), another species at risk of extinction.

Being approximately the same size as the totoaba, vaquitas are entangled and drowned by illegal nets that seek to capture the totoaba for their highly prized swim bladders which are illegally trafficked via black markets to China, where they fetch a price equivalent to gold, earning it the nickname of “cocaine of the sea.”

Despite the vaquita estimated to being down to its last few individuals, there is reason for hope. Research recently concluded that there is enough genetic diversity in the small remaining population of vaquita to allow for recovery, but illegal fishing would need to end immediately.

So far, conservation efforts have not been effective despite international advocacy efforts and celebrity involvement. The lack of political will to enforce environmental laws, strengthen biodiversity conservation and maintain free-fishing areas around the vaquita's habitat has only reinforced the history of distrust between fishers and government. Meanwhile, illegal fishing continues. Time is running out for the vaquita and if conservation efforts continue to be unsuccessful, another species will go extinct, leading to far-reaching consequences on oceanic ecosystems and related food webs.

An estimated 3 billion people worldwide rely upon marine ecosystems and seafood as a major part of their diets.

Wider picture

The continuing practice of illegal species trafficking around the world not only threatens species like the vaquita but also whole ecosystems as species disappear from webs. As an estimated 3 billion people worldwide rely upon marine ecosystems and seafood as a major part of their diets, the risk to ecosystems has flow-on effects for human health and local economies. Beyond this, the current continuance of illegal fishing despite clear legislation undermines state authority.

Root Causes

Unequal distribution of economic opportunities and limited livelihood options

Pressures related to increasing consumptive demands for goods, such as food, energy and industrial materials.

A lack of perception, awareness or preparation in governance relating to risk management and response

Pursuit of economic or developmental interests with a lack of consideration for impacts on the environment

Cases where maximizing profit is prioritized over other social concerns, increasing risk


Planned and controlled criminal activities that perpetuate a hazard or vulnerability.

An absence or ineffective enforcement of regulations to increase resilience.


Through their impacts on natural and agricultural systems, supply chains and economies, disasters can put access to the foods we depend on for survival at risk.

Disasters cause fatalities both when they occur and in the aftermath with cascading effects on physical and mental health.

Just like people, nature also feels the impacts of various hazards resulting in threats to health and physical damage to individuals, populations, communities or entire ecosystems.

Reduction of people’s ability to support themselves or their family, both temporarily or permanently, is an impact that is interconnected with many others, including health and food security.


Sustainable fishing gear: Replacing harmful fishing gear with more sustainable methods, such as small trawls or rigid traps, helps to minimize by-catch of non-target species like the vaquita. This reduces biodiversity loss and secondary impacts from discarded gear (e.g. “ghost nets”), but concerns around cost and effectiveness from fishers must be properly addressed by fisheries managers.

Sustainable aquaculture: Farming species such as the totoaba for food or resupply of wild stocks can help to relieve pressure on endangered species and food security while providing more livelihood options. This must be closely regulated to ensure environmental sustainability and equitable access for local communities.

Collaborative resource management: A participatory approach involving local fishing communities and the local culture/knowledge they represent in the design of fisheries management helps to achieve long-term buy-in for conservation measures, and should target the culture of distrust between the government and fishers by incorporating respect and sustainable incentives as part of the process.