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Some Possible Good News For World's Tiniest Whale

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Vaquita in the wild | Photo: Paula Olsen, NOAA

There's a bit of good news for the world's smallest, most endangered, possibly cutest dolphin: scientists have actually found some.

The vaquita, Phocoena sinus, is critically endangered, with the most authoritative estimates putting the total number of vaquitas in the northern Gulf of California at fewer than 100. Despite having their meager remaining habitat formally protected by the government of Mexico, vaquitas face serious threats from gillnetting for shrimp and for an endangered fish called the totoaba, whose swim bladder commands high prices on the Chinese luxury food market.

Conservationists have been alarmed at the rapid decline of the vaquita, whose numbers have dropped by more than 18 percent per year over the last several years, with that rate of decline increasing last year. With fewer than 90 expected to still exist, which likely means fewer than 25 females of breeding age, even just seeing a vaquita is a rare event anymore. Which made it all the more exciting that within the first few days of a new survey, researchers spotted three of the little guys.

 

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That's a gender-nonspecific "guys": at least one of the vaquitas sighted by researchers was a female. Another was a male, with a third unidentifiable as to gender. The sightings were made by participants in Expedition Vaquita 2015, conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Mexico's Department of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT). The expedition began looking for vaquitas on September 26 and will continue through December 3.

With the extinction in the last 15 years of the Chinese Yangtze river dolphin or baiji, the vaquita won the uncoveted title of "most endangered cetacean." Averaging less than 120 pounds in weight and reaching a maximum of five feet in length, vaquitas are significantly smaller than the average adult human.

Though photographs of the vaquitas' faces are hard to come by (at least while they're still alive), the animals also have distinctive and appealing facial markings that resemble a permanent smile and a bit too much on the eye shadow.

There's more than just rarity making vaquitas hard to spot: the tiny whales -- close relatives of harbor porpoises -- prefer shallow, turbid water as their habitat, making them truly hard to see. Though researchers do rely on visual sightings for their estimate of the vaquitas' numbers, they also count on data gathered by underwater acoustic monitors, which record the vaquitas' characteristic vocalizations.

The Mexican government recently stepped up enforcement of the ban on gillnetting in the vaquita refuge, arresting 19 people and confiscating 22 boats and more than 200 totoabas. Mexico's Congress is now considering a bill, introduced in May, that would increase penalties for catching totoabas. A two-year-long ban on using gillnets throughout the vaquita's range was signed by Mexican president Peña Nieto in April.According to NOAA's Barb Taylor, a senior scientist on the survey, the gillnet ban has been a surprising success so far. In a post on the expedition's blog, she writes:

Spokespeople for NOAA characterized the reaction of researchers to the vaquita sightings as on of "jubilation." "We knew vaquitas remained because we are hearing them, but seeing them today is a great relief," said Mexican Chief Scientist Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho.

For the record: This article has been edited. An earlier version of the article asserted that vaquitas' historic habitat had been restricted by artificial changes to the Colorado River Delta. Barb Taylor informs me that that's not the case, and that vaquitas have not historically been found outside their current habitat in the north end of the Sea of Cortez, which she characterizes as "one of the most productive marine habitats in the world." Based on information Taylor provided, I've also clarified two sentences on vaquita population estimates and the extent of gillnetting in a usual shrimp season. I apologize for the inaccuracies.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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