Experts on Wednesday said that they had counted a total of 22 vaquita porpoises in the Gulf of California, the Los Angeles Times reports. That's the only place where the creatures—the smallest of the world's cetaceans, an order which includes dolphins—live.*
As Ben Goldfarb wrote in his 2018 Pacific Standard feature, "The Endling: Watching a Species Vanish in Real Time," vaquitas are "a headache to study." They're elusive: They avoid loud boat engines, and they don't show off with flashy jumps or splashes. The researchers who issued the new report used acoustic monitors to reach their count.
As Goldfarb explained, vaquitas face serious risks:
They share their habitat with a fish called the totoaba, a mammoth cousin of the sea bass whose swim bladders are a delicacy worth up to $100,000 per kilogram in mainland China and Hong Kong. Although totoaba fishing has been banned since 1975—they, too, are critically endangered—poaching is rampant. Vaquitas, roughly the same size as totoabas, are prone to getting entangled and drowning in illegal nets.
More poaching has meant fewer vaquitas, with 80 percent of the porpoise's population disappearing between 2008 and 2015. When we published Goldfarb's feature, it was estimated that there were fewer than 30 vaquitas left. Volunteers from a group called Sea Shepherd, who remove illegal gill nets, may be the only thing keeping the species from disappearing entirely.
"We talk about extinction as a glib abstraction," as Bob Pitman, an ecologist and one of the first people to survey the species, told Goldfarb. "But it's real, it's happening, and vaquita are next in line."
*Update—May 28th, 2019: This post has been updated to specify that the count of remaining vaquitas took place in the Gulf of California.