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Time Is Running Out To Save The Last 97 ‘Little Cows’ Of The Ocean

<p>Paula Olson, NOAA</p>

An iconic species is at risk of dying out in the next few years - with a population of just 97 individuals, the endangered vaquita is teetering on the edge of extinction.

The vaquita holds two records: it is both the smallest porpoise in the world and in a group that includes marine mammals like dolphins, whales and porpoises, is the world's most endangered cetacean.

Native to the shallow coastal waters in the Gulf of California and Mexico, the species is known for both its level of evolutionary distinction (it has no close relatives compared to other species) and for its characteristic facial markings:

(YouTube/Wanderlust: Exploration & Adventure)

The species' population has plummeted due to shrimping and and gillnet fishing, which often traps the animals in their nets as bycatch. There were about 567 vaquitas alive in 1997, but now there are only 25 breeding females. There are also concerns that a low population of breeding animals could mean inbreeding and genetic mutations.

The issue hasn't gone unnoticed by the conservation community. Dr. Chris Parsons, marine scientist and past president of the marine section of the Society for Conservation Biology, told The Dodo that there is frustration at the lack of action from organizations and governments to save the species, especially after a recent report about the population's plummeting numbers.

It would take an estimated $60 million to buy out the fishermen who are destroying the vaquitas' habitat - a sum that could be reached through donations and government support. SCB put down an initial donation of $5,000 - a substantial sum for an organization of its kind. Dr. Parsons added:

"A big theme [for the International Marine Conservation Congress] was, to quote Dumbledore ... ‘There comes a time to choose between what is easy and what is right.'"

It's not all over for the species yet. Mexico has taken steps to save the species, establishing a refuge in their its habitat and funneling around $30 million (U.S.) to encourage fishers to use less harmful methods. A team of researchers has recommended banning gillnets in the upper region of the gulf - a measure that is still under discussion.

See this page for more information about the "little cow," as the vaquita is called, and how to save this dwindling species.