Preserving Wildlife

Conservation with a “Porpoise”


Zoos are traditionally thought of as focusing on the conservation and well-being of land-based or terrestrial animals. As such, when a unique opportunity came our way recently to help conserve the most endangered marine mammal in the world, it took bit of philosophical wrestling on our part to justify our involvement.

It certainly helped my team and me in the Conservation Education Division that this porpoise was not only the world’s rarest marine mammal species, but that the government of Mexico recently listed it as one of the top five endangered animals in the country AND that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) included it as one of the world’s 100 most endangered species.

Our decision was easy to make in the end.

The diminutive vaquita porpoise Phocoena sinus inhabits a very limited range in the northern Gulf of California, Mexico, near the Colorado River Delta. The vaquita (Spanish for calf) is less than 5 feet long and tops out at only around 120 pounds at maturity. Because it has a total range of less than 1,388 square miles (an area only three times the size of New York City), the vaquita has a single tiny area in which to sustain an entire marine mammal species!

To make matters worse, the population has declined from around 567 individuals in 1997 to only 245 in 2008, which was a 43% decline in the population. Things are challenging for the charismatic vaquita.

Fishing for Solutions

The main threat to the vaquita is inadvertent entanglement in gillnets set by fishermen harvesting fish and shrimp. However, the leading vaquita researchers state that the vaquita population can recover if gillnet use is eliminated from their range.

To eliminate gillnets, the local community must be psychologically prepared, willing, and motivated to engage in alternative fishing technologies. This is where the Conservation Education Division comes in, working with our accomplished partners from the Instituto Nacional de Ecología – México, SeaWorld / Busch Gardens, The Fresno Chaffee Zoo, Centro Intercultural de Estudios de Desiertos y Océanos (CEDO), and World Wildlife Fund – Mexico.

Our group has met twice to plan how to best engage local communities in shared conservation planning. Our central goal is to get the communities to transition over to a new fishing technology that will be more lucrative for the fishermen and ultimately safer for the vaquita. Our partners in the Mexican government are working to eliminate the current use of gillnetting throughout the vaquita’s range and have been insightful leaders in spurring the conservation of the vaquita over the last few years.

The Human League

Our collaborative group has prioritized the most efficient methods of addressing the human dimension of conservation. We will cultivate a sense of local pride in the vaquita and ultimately transfer ownership of vaquita conservation to the three fishing communities that are our main focus.

To do this, we are engaging the communities in education, outreach, and alternative livelihood opportunities to garner an interest in alternative fishing gear.

This January, our SDZG scientists and conservation educators will visit the three communities to conduct the initial site assessments to ensure that outreach methods are appropriate for the local culture and environmentally sound. Because local people are the most important long-term conservation stewards, we will work with fishermen, community members, teachers, and artisans in the three communities surrounding the vaquita’s range.

Although the vaquita is in a difficult situation at present, this impressive collaboration offers hope for the future for this most-threatened of all marine mammals. Stay tuned for future updates as we work together to conserve this species.

By Dr. James A. Danoff-Burg
Director, Conservation Education Division
San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

Photos of the vaquita porpoise by Thomas Jefferson and ARKive.