If you've never heard of the vaquita, then picture a porpoise about the size of a small human with black-lined, expressive eyes and a rounded mouth. The smallest members of the porpoise family, vaquitas are today found only in the waters of Mexico’s northern Gulf of California – and pretty soon, you won't find them there either. According to a new report, their numbers have declined by more than 40 percent in just a single year. Now, only around 50 individuals remain.

Vaquita Porpoises _2015_06_22
Image: Paula Olson, NOAA

Well before this latest dose of grim news, the shy and elusive vaquita was already considered the world's rarest and most threatened porpoise species, its populations in decline since as far back as the 1950s. Last year, an international team of scientists concluded that fewer than a hundred of these marine mammals survived; in the year the followed, vaquita numbers dwindled to likely fewer than 50.

“It’s horrifying to witness, in real time, the extinction of an animal right in front of our eyes,” says the Center for Biological Diversity's Sarah Uhlemann. 

The porpoises' fate is inextricably, er, entangled with the fate of another endangered species: a large marine fish known as the totoaba. Totoabas are being poached to extinction for their coveted swim bladders, one of which can fetch an astounding $14,000 on the black market as demand soars for their use in Asian traditional medicine and as an ingredient in soup. And as poachers race to cash in on the totoaba buffet, their gillnets are snaring and drowning the world's remaining vaquitas in the process. Fishing nets set for shrimp also pose a danger.

“We’re truly at the brink of losing the vaquita forever,” warns Zak Smith, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Marine Mammal Protection Project. 

Mexico's past efforts to clamp down on the growing illegal totoaba fishery, and to restrict the use of gillnets, have failed to pull the porpoises back from the brink. In fact, the number of fishing boats skimming porpoise habitat for spoils actually increased. And even the country's latest moves to save the species could be a case of too little, too late. Back in April, government officials announced a two-year ban on most gillnets in the northern Gulf of California – but conservationists say that ban should be permanent.

“It’s inexcusable that vaquita are paying the price for Mexico’s history of ineffective and half-hearted efforts to ‘protect’ them. Now, only the most extreme measures will help, and that means a zero-tolerance enforcement of the gillnet ban in the Gulf of California.”

“Without drastic help, vaquitas could vanish completely in just a few years. We need the world to wake up and help save these incredible porpoises,” adds Uhlemann.

Top header image: Paula Olson, NOAA