Saving The Vaquita: A Race Against Extinction, Only Six-Eight Remain In The World

Illustration by: Frédérique Lucas

The Mexican government announced last week that only an estimated six to eight critically endangered vaquitas may remain in the Sea of Cortez, according to a new survey.

The new estimate suggests that the vaquita population may have decreased or individuals moved outside the survey area. Additionally, no calves were sighted in 2024, compared to one to two calves seen in 2023.

The survey was conducted in May and covered a larger area of the vaquita’s habitat in the Upper Gulf of California compared to 2023. It was funded by the Mexican government and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.

The vaquita’s numbers have plummeted significatly from nearly 600 in the late 1990s to currently only six to eight remaining in the wild. This decline is directly caused by illegal fishing for the totoaba fish. The totoaba’s swim bladder is in high demand in Asia, particularly in China, given its purported medicinal value.

Mexico published an agreement in 2020 to significantly reduce illegal fishing and provide a critical lifeline to the vaquita. To date, the country has not comprehensively enforced these standards. While some progress has been made to reduce illegal fishing in Mexico’s Zero Tolerance Area, a small area that likely represents the vaquita’s core habitat still remains rampant with illegal fishing. 

“While we commend all involved in conducting the survey, the likely decline in vaquita numbers should be setting off alarm bells in Mexico and around the world,” said DJ Schubert, senior wildlife biologist for the Animal Welfare Institute’s Marine Wildlife Program. “Given Mexico’s ongoing failures to stop illegal fishing and the trafficking of totoaba, the government remains complacent in the vaquita’s near-extinction. For decades, the primary threat to vaquita has been entanglement in illegal gillnets. Yet — despite Mexico’s 2020 agreement prohibiting the use, possession, transport, and manufacture of such nets — they remain widely used by fishers in the Upper Gulf.”

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and the International Whaling Commission (IWC) have repeatedly called on Mexico to urgently stop illegal fishing to save the vaquita — with minimal success. These and other international entities involved in wildlife protection and conservation must take further action to compel Mexico to do more to prevent the vaquita from becoming the next extinct species.

During a recent press conference, Mexico announced that it will initiate a comprehensive acoustic survey for the vaquita outside of the Zero Tolerance Area to determine if the animals are present outside of their former core habitat.

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