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Kelli Bender
February 28, 2017 05:16 PM

Cute, unique and tiny — the vaquita should be a well-known animal with countless protectors.

Tragically, the numbers of the world’s smallest porpoise species have rapidly dwindled over the past five years, and now there are only 30 of these animals left.

The vaquita, which means “little cow” in Spanish, is a tiny cetacean with dark rings around its eyes, a sweet face and large dorsal fin, that can only be found in the northern part of the Gulf of California.

According to Porpoise.org, the population of this shy creature has been but cut by 90 percent between in 2011 and 2016, largely in part to the use of gill-nets in the waters where they live.

Gill-nets are large panels of netting set in the water in a long, straight line. These nets allow fisherman to quickly snag the fish they are hunting as the animal swims through the water and get caught in the holes. In the Gulf of California, fisherman often set these nets to catch another endangered species, a fish known totoaba — a fish in demand for their swim bladders, which are considered a delicacy in China.

Along with contributing to the endangerment of the totoaba, gill-nets are a threat to many other animals, including the vaquita, because they indiscriminately catch and entangle all animals that swim through them. A vaquita that becomes caught in a gill-net often dies within minutes because they are unable to swim to the surface for air.

In 2015, Mexico passed a temporary ban against gill-nets and night fishing in the vaquita habitat. While the Mexican Navy is set to enforce these rules, illegal fishing and poaching continues, hacking away at the vaquita population.

Now there are few options left to the conservationists fighting to save this miniature porpoise. Experts are now suggesting several vaquita be pulled from the wild and kept in a pool until a specially built sea pen is created to hold them. This pen would give the animals a natural habitat to procreate in while remaining protected, reports The New York Times. It is plan full of “what ifs” and potential failures, but it is still a plan.

Even for this option to work, it would require drastic permanent changes in how the people working in the Gulf of California fish, changes that have unfortunately seen little support outside of conservation groups.

To do your part to save this “little cow,” you can donate to their conservation and learn more here.

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