Only 12 Vaquita Porpoises Are Left in the Entire World

Only 12 Vaquita Porpoises Are Left in the Entire World

Last year the count was 30. When this year’s count came back at 12, optimism for the survival of the vaquita porpoise drained out of researchers’ hearts. Little hope remains for the species whose lives have been snared by illegal gillnet fishing in the Gulf of California.

Spanish for “little cow,” the vaquita were only discovered in the 1950s. Half a century later, they are the most endangered cetacean, on the brink of vanishing forever. The world’s smallest porpoise species, the vaquita average around 5 feet in length and 95 pounds. Tucked between the Baja Peninsula and mainland Mexico, the only habitat for the species is the northern part of the Gulf of California. Though the area has been set aside for protection for the vaquita, their numbers have continued to plummet. The major cause of death is drowning, caused by entanglement in illegal gillnets.

vaquita porpoise

The dark ring around the eye give this shy animal a distinct look. / NOAA

A tragic death for an animal who spends its life in the water, drowning is how most of the vaquita perish. Caught in gillnets meant for fish, the air-breathing marine mammals become ensnared and trapped underwater. Adding insult to injury, the majority of the fishing is for the swim bladder of a fish, erroneously thought to increase fertility. When the carcasses are pulled up in nets, the bodies of the critically endangered animal are just thrown away.

The totoaba is a large fish whose swim bladder catches a high price in China as “maw,” an ingredient added to soup or used as bogus medicine. Though illegal under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species), fishermen can get up to $4,000 per pound of swim bladder, enough money to equal half of a year’s worth of legal fishing. One person was found with $3.6 million worth of totoaba swim bladders in his possession. With an illegal trade worth that much money, ending the fishing will be a difficult task. Totoaba themselves are endangered due to this trade.

maw totoaba vaquita

“Maw,” the swim bladder of the totoaba fish in a Chinese market


“Even if they kill all the vaquitas, we owe it to them to tell their full story, the truth, and we want to take down those responsible[.]”

Andrea Crosta, director of Elephant Action League, an international wildlife trade watchdog group, recently went on a field investigation to find out how many vaquitas remain. In an interview with Mongabay, his comments left little to be optimistic about. With regards to local fishermen he said, “I think they are actually waiting for the vaquita to go extinct so they can fish more and with fewer restrictions.” In a place of poverty, choosing between an endangered animal and putting food on your own table can only result in the latter. The fishermen are as entangled in the illegal trade as the vaquita are in their nets.

Not all have given up the fight for the remaining vaquita. The Mexican government enacted a complete and permanent ban on gillnet fishing in 2017, but the practice has not been curbed. A bold attempt was made in 2017 to capture the remaining vaquita and place them in sea pens until the illegal gillnet fishing could be brought under control. However, it proved too stressful for the animals and caused the death of one breeding-age female.

Operation Milagro IV is a campaign by Sea Shepherd to monitor and protect the porpoises and remove ghost nets, fishing nets abandoned in the water that entangle vaquitas and many other species. WWF is participating in acoustic monitoring, exploring new fishing technologies to replace the gillnets, and working on committees with the Mexican government to come up with solutions. The only question that remains: will it be enough?

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  1. irene leggett

    It doesn’t matter what article you read about a species being under threat from extinction, the species’ capture and death is ALWAYS linked with that gut-wrenchingly, vile, depraved, cruel country CHINA…….I just wish that CHINA and its equally depraved, ignorant masses were under threat of extinction, so ridding this world of the most ‘dangerous’ nation. It seems as thought there is NOT a single species that walks, crawls, swims or flies that CHINA doesn’t exploit in some form or another, be it for food, fur, skin and fake medicine.

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  2. Karin parker

    We are destroying everything that God gave to us in this world. Nearly now
    every animal (gift from God) are being hunted and destroyed WHY ARE WE
    DOING THIS WE ARE JUST BARBARIANS? The animals are far better than we will ever

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  3. Steven Brough

    Surely when a species is so critically endangered as this, animal welfare groups like Lady Freethinker, the WWF and the numerous other societies could work together and provide financial assistance to protect these beautiful animals. As we are only talking about dealing with local fishermen there should be no personal endangerment to any volunteers, so why can’t they put a boat manned by volunteers on permanent escort duty for these beleaguered 12 porpoises until a permanent and effective solution is found? They could track them acoustically from a distance that wouldn’t disturb their natural behaviour. I’m sure if the Mexican government was approached/confronted by a joint representation from numerous animal welfare groups they would be prepared to have a coastguard boat available to arrest any illegal fishermen reported by the surveillance boat. Whilst the majority of mankind doesn’t seem to give a s**t about animal welfare and the environment, there are still millions of us around the globe that do. I’m sure there are many of these people who would be prepared to volunteer to help protect this endangered species if only for a week or so at a time. It would only require a maximum of 4 people on the boat to provide 24 hours a day surveillance. You only have to look at organizations like Greenpeace, who stage protests for weeks or even months to prevent the destruction of the environment with some of their members even sleeping in trees to prevent them being cut down. Why can’t something similar be done for these porpoises? After several arrests, followed by heavy fines and maybe a short stay in the local prison, some or hopefully many of the fishermen maybe deterred from carrying out their illegal activities. Not only would this benefit the porpoises, but also the totoaba fish which are an endangered species. This is surely a case when the animal welfare and environment protection groups need to unite and rally their members, supporters and activists and do something constructive and positive.

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    • sharon van rensburg

      Beautifully written. Why indeed does it seem the only action taken is petitions? Where is Greenpeace?

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  4. Christine

    They die to increase the fertility of the Chinese ?… We are already too fertile, causing the death of so many animals with our surplus population and it’s only getting worse.

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    • peter o'rourke

      yeah there is hardly a shortage of chinese ,and you all know the saying the only thing with four legs they don’t eat ia the table they eat off of and as for their ridiculous ideas of healing products rhino horns and so on IDIOTS

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  5. Kathleen Simmons

    Mankind is not kind. We have ourselves to blame when they disappear under our watch. Where are the government agencies who must work with scientists and marine biologists….they must try…

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  6. Jacqueline Tessier

    Please protect vaquitas, it is most urgent !

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  7. Armand Smith

    its terrible. I have been to this part of Mexico. Total poverty fisherman do what they can to catch shrimp and will not stop using illegal nets. Say good bye to this species. Article does not mention if there are any in captivity

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  8. Anne-Mari Gavin

    We need real laws world wide that will work to sort out ALL animal/children abusers.
    Feed all abusers to the crocodiles/lions. That will put an end to all abuse once and for all.
    Let the animals sort then out like Bible times lion dens.

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  9. Jill

    This is so heartbreaking! Humans disgust me ! We need to all go extinct so the animals of this world can live in peace. If more people would become vegan we could save so many species! Please people of the world go VEGAN !

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  10. Avery

    I simply don’t understand: with only 12 of them left, why not simply catch them, put them in an aquarium and get them to breed. Then release them back into the wild when it’s safe? I know an aquarium is not a great place to live, but it sure beats the heck out of being dead and extinct!

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    • Liz

      Many wild animals don’t live in captivity because of the stress of capture and/or the captivity itself. The vaquita is one of them. Captive breeding programs are not the savior for animals like this. The only way to save most wild species is by preserving in the wild. Zoos need to do a better job explaining that because a lot of people believe zoos are an option, which is not true for most wild animals.

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  11. Erika Howards

    It’s so very sad to see so many species being killed off 😿

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  12. Lisa


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  13. Sherry Janetzke

    How sad … DON’T consume shrimp from Mexico!!!!!!!!!

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  14. alex

    all animals are precious.
    we must save as many as possible.

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  15. Peppi Boudreau

    Lord, God Bless these dolphines who are on the brink of extinction. I ask of you to increase their population and prevent the remaining of these porpoises from being ensnared by fishing lines to be captured. Can anyone PLEASE tell my why China is behind eliminating just about every endangered species on earth? Why? They still believe that killing Endangered species and using their body parts to cure sickness and other physical ailments. Like Elephant Tusks and Rhino Horn can be used as potions to heal the sick. It has been proven by scientific medical science that murdering animals for their body parts holds no medical purpose what so ever. They continue to believe in their ancient medicines as a cure all. They are Barbaric and refuse to embrace civilized culture and modern medicine. Also, they continue to hold festivals, like the Yulin dog meat festivals. They believe that eating dog meat increases their sex drive and enhances their performance. This culture refuses to belong to the current times and hold tightly to their ancient ways.

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  16. Mary Liuise Hawkins

    With only 12 left they are extinct. We can protest but that does not really help. We should be out there with each oe!!!!

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  17. Hollie

    We must all do all we can and take a stand to save these majestic and rare animals NOW before it is too late. IF WE MUST BOYCOTT THE COUNTRIES TO MAKE THEM TAKE ACTION …LET’S DO THAT NOW!!

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  18. Hollie

    We must all do all we can and take a stand to save these majestic and rare animals NOW before it is too late.

    Reply Report comment
  19. Claire Williams

    This is heart breaking so many innocent animals die due to the ignorance of humans.Only 12 left so very very sad.

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  20. Ni Hubbard

    Good lord i am so tired of man . Taking all the innocent animals away . I have never seen one of these in a picture before . And I probably would of never known they do exist if it wasn’t for this website. I think jail will suite people good if they are caught with these bladders . Bless the few left . Damn humans!!!!!!!

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  21. CLC

    I have been waiting for the day they would become extinct. I have signed petitions, boycotted Mexican shrimp and other seafood that has been the main reason these beautiful creatures will be extinct probably before the year is over. All that fell on deaf ears and now it is too late. WAKE THE HELL UP PEOPLE! HOW MANY MORE SPECIES WILL BECOME EXTINCT IN YOUR LIFETIME! People say, “Oh, darn, poor little (fill in the blank) is now extinct, it’s too bad no one did anything to stop that from happening.” WHAT do YOU plan to do to help critically endangered species? Too bad humans aren’t going extinct to let the animals have THEIR Earth and right to live freely back. Fuck China and Mexico too.

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    • Kathleen Eaton

      AMEN, CLC!! AMEN!! If humans would stop acting like they own this planet and all on it, maybe something could be done to stop these extinctions. But mankind is greedy and will continue in their wanton ways until WE become the next species to go extinct. I just pray that it comes in time so that wildlife has a chance to repopulate this world.

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  22. jalien shandler

    I am so very supportive of the wonderful people working to save these precious animals. I wish you joy in your endeavors and much success!!**!!

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  23. Janice

    We have to prevent this poor creature from becoming extinct!!

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  24. Tisa

    This is too sad. MOST every country is guilty of so much animal cruelty, and extinction and environment destruction. Rev. 11: 18 says “God will bring to ruin those ruining the earth”. Fortunately, we are living in the time that that will occur.
    Knowing that, is what keeps me going.

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  25. Rosita Muller

    Zo verschrikkelijk als deze prachtige dieren uitsterven dankzij de mens!!!!!

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  26. Pauline

    China is responsible for the extinction of the white rhino, imperiled tigers, elephants, pangolians and lions. China is raping and pillaging these endangered critical species – 12 and we re going to watch it dwindle down. Why can’t China be stopped? One Chinese woman billionaire donated money – I say sanction China ! It’s time to make China pay!!! They brought back the Panda for themselves now do it for the world.

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  27. Catherine Miele

    That is such sad news, this is a beautiful mammal and to think they may soon be extinct is heartbreaking. It seems that man is directly responsible fot the extinction of so many species. I feel that we should desperately be working on an alternative plan tp save these beautiful. Vaquita dolphins.

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  28. Hazel Veeder

    What a shameful legacy . Heartbreaking .
    Thank you to all those working so hard to save these exquisite creatures .

    Reply Report comment
  29. brenda jacobs

    When will mankind wake up and realise that we have an obligation towards the environment!

    Reply Report comment
  30. Leanne

    It makes me so sad and angry at the same time to hear about the imminent demise of the Vacquita Dolphin due to being ensnared in fishing nets which cause them to drown. Humans are so fucked up.

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  31. Christine Lanterme

    What a sad story. I also wish that those who fish illegally would end up in prison and incur heavy fines. Once again, ‘man gives the world its saddest sound’

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    • Emma garcia

      Unfortunately we are dealing with Mexico and China. Need I say more.

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  32. Christine Lanterme

    What a sad story. I also wish that those who fish illegally would end up in prison and incur heavy fines. Once again, ‘man gives the world its saddest sound’

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  33. Debbie Smith

    It all seems so hopeless, but lets not forget the hypocrisy of people who eat animals bred in horrendous conditions in Utah, people who wear fur coats and on and on. Nothing will change until people is mass decide animals and nature matter. China us a problem but America us not much better. The USA is the 2nd biggest importer of ivory in the world. And if course with Trump in offu e nothing will change. The only answer is education. Its all so sad.

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  34. Debbie Smith

    It all seems so hopeless, but lets not forget the hypocrisy of people who eat animals bred in horrendous conditions in Utah, people who wear fur coats and on and on. Nothing will change until people is mass decide animals and nature matter. China us a problem but America us not much better. The USA is the 2nd biggest importer of ivory in the world. And if course with Trump in offu e nothing will change. The only answer is education. Its all so sad.

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  35. geraldine A berryman

    The Chinese have a lot to answer for when it comes to endangering animals.
    I don’t suppose they are going to change their habits about medicine, but maybe an education programme about the importance of maintaining diversity in the planet.
    I don’t know if this is even feasible.
    It seems human needs are dominating the planet right now and there doesn’t seem an awful lot of hope for sensitive creatures.
    I am very very sad and appalled that we have not managed to protect this beautiful wild mamal. Rest in peace vaquittas.
    Sorry for our ignorance and greed.

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  36. JW nunn

    Round up the 12 and start a captive breeding program. Is working for other species that are endangered.

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    • Emma

      They tried and a female died from the stress.

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  37. Judy

    This makes me very sad. I would almost rather see them in a colony in a spacious sanctuary than to see them go extinct. But as the article said, that was too stressful on them. They are such beautiful creatures. This really breaks my heart to see their numbers plummet. I wish fishing could be banned permanently from those waters with heavy fines and imprisonment. I know that the Cincinnati Zoo has the CREW program – Center for Reproduction of Endangered Wildlife. They make tremendous strides with other mammals, but I don’t know if they are involved with porpoises. This story is just heartbreaking.

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  38. Debra Ingle

    I am so very sad to know about these special mammals. I guess it is too risky to capture to help make more, similar to cloning? Let’s keep our prayers for their survival. Maybe God will help make something happen to save them. Everyone pray for this, and other species and people that need hope and help.

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      • Catherine Miele

        It is so heartbreaking that the Vaquita Porpoise is probably extinct. That is tragic, that due to mankind’s neverending greed has destroyed so much of the beauty in the world. When will it ever end?? RIP Beautiful Vaquita porpoises. If we destroyed you , sorry just isn’t enough. 🐬

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