The vaquita, a small porpoise that lives only in the northern part of the Gulf of California in Mexico, is the most endangered marine mammal in the world. Scientists estimate that only 97 individuals remain, with the population declining rapidly due to incidental mortality in the gillnets used by fishermen. Current estimates say that the species will become extinct by 2018 if a gillnet ban to eliminate fishing bycatch is not enacted immediately. However, commercial fishing is a primary industry of the region and the livelihoods of many people in the small northern Gulf towns of San Felipe, Puerto Peñasco, and El Golfo de Santa Clara, so efforts to ban gillnet fishing come at a great economic cost. Local support for the conservation effort has been hindered by the lack of photographic evidence of vaquita, and some locals even believe that the vaquita is a mythical creature. Efforts to raise public awareness have been hampered by the lack of documentation of the vaquita in their natural habitat, which is essential for increasing public knowledge of the vaquita’s plight.
We are collaborating with scientists from the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP) in Mexico and the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, who have stressed the need for better imagery of vaquita in order to gain local and international support for the conservation initiative. Our project aims to support the conservation efforts by CIRVA by using specialized technology to monitor vaquita in their natural habitat. The project consists of two aspects: aerial surveys, and underwater imaging, each of which will meet a special need in vaquita conservation. We are working on performing aerial surveys using low-cost unmanned planes to conduct a visual census of the vaquita population both inside and outside of the Vaquita Refuge, in order to provide supporting evidence for the extension of the gillnet exclusion zone. We are also designing specialized underwater camera traps, which will be triggered by the unique vocalizations vaquita make, to try to get compelling underwater imagery of the vaquita thriving in its natural habitat, which will help get buy-in from the local communities to the conservation effort.
Media is key to the vaquita conservation effort, but due to the vaquita’s shyness and dwindling numbers, photographs and videos of vaquita are rare. Additionally, no underwater photographs of the species exist, making the need for compelling underwater media essential. We have built an underwater camera trap specifically designed to photograph the vaquita in its natural habitat.
Vaquita make vocalizations for echolocation and communication, which are in the range of 122 to 150 kHz. These vocalizations provide the trigger for the camera trap, and are picked up by an ultrasonic hydrophone which triggers the camera trap to record video if the vaquita is close by.