As a beach and sea-lover, I’ve always been fascinated by marine life. I wanted to write about some of the planets most endangered marine animals to highlight their difficulties and to contribute in creating awareness around the problems they face.
10 Most Endangered: Marine Animals is not an exhaustive list but demonstrates how some species are close to extinction, and how others have a chance to recover from their endangered status. A number of factors can affect the survival rate of any species; natural, biological and others from humans. I hope this piece helps to show some examples and draw attention to areas of human activity that should be modified.
Whilst researching I found no up-to-date, conclusive lists of the current most endangered populations.
1. Vaquita – Population: 20 or less
The Vaquita is the world’s most endangered sea mammal. There are less than 20 individual Vaquita documented and the animal is facing very imminent extinction. Vaquita, meaning ‘little cow’ in Spanish, is a species of small and chunky porpoise, recognisable from dark rings around their eyes, dark lips and a thin line from mouth to dorsal fin.
The tragic tale of the Vaquita shows the devastation that mankind can cause in a short space of time. It’s around half a century (50 years) since the first sighting of the porpoise (1958) in the Gulf of Mexico. Since then, many have been hunted or die entangled in human fishing nets. Despite efforts from conservationists and regulations from the Mexican Government, illegal fishing, illegal trading and limited education of local communities have contributed to their rapid decline.
The fight for this species continues but it is looking like they won’t recover. Hopefully lessons will be learned from the Vaquita, and their story will serve as a modern warning that our fishing industries cause irreversible damage to marine life.
2. Māui dolphin – Population: 50 or less
Māui dolphins can be found off the west coast of North Island, New Zealand, and the rare species of small dolphin are critically endangered with an estimated population of around 50. Māui dolphins are distinguishable by their unusual rounded dorsal fin and black, grey and white body markings.
The dolphin population has been rapidly declining partly due to their natural biology of late maturity, low reproduction rates and short lifespan. A disease named toxoplasmosis, caused by domestic cat faeces, has taken a toll on the species, and they have also been affected by fishing, boat activity, oil and gas exploration, mining and tourism.
Unfortunately the Government of New Zealand has resisted demands to protect the species with fishing bans, and in June 2014 opened up 3,000 square kilometres of the dolphins main habitat for oil drilling. This capitalist move has most likely thwarted a chance of recovery for the species.
3. North Atlantic Right whale – Population: 350
North Atlantic Right whales are native to the eastern USA and Canada, and known to travel around the Atlantic Ocean to Iceland, the UK, western Europe and Norway. The large whales are mostly black, with occasional white markings and rough patches of skin on their heads called callosities.
They were once a widespread species but, like the Vaquita and the Māui dolphin, the population of the North Atlantic Right whale is woefully low with under 400 remaining. The main problem that they face is the fishing industry, with deaths caused by entanglements and ship collisions. Individuals can live up to 100 years old, but the majority are killed before they reach 40. Multi agency research found that between the years of 2003 and 2018, 90% of all Right whale deaths were caused by entanglement or trauma from shipping vessels and the noise that they produce. Undersea naval sonar training in the calving grounds of the whale is believed to have further impacted the breeding habits of the species.
The global Convention on the Conservation of Migratory Species of Wild Animals (CMS) obligates member nations (including the UK, EU and Greenland) to strive towards protection of the animals, their habitats and migration routes, however their numbers continue to reduce. The use of rope-less fishing gear and stricter enforcement of ship speed limits in the whale habitat are believed to be the keys to prevent the North Atlantic Right whale from extinction.
4. Hawaiian Monk seal – Population: 1,200
Hawaiian Monk seals are mainly found around the North-western Islands of Hawaii, with a smaller population around the main Hawaiian islands. The earless seal is recognisable by its grey coat, white belly, streamlined physique and small, flat head with short hairs, that are said to resemble a Monk.
Some natural factors have been attributed to the declining numbers of Hawaiian Monk seals including; erosion in the Northwest Hawaiian Islands (leading to a reduction in prey abundance), rising seas levels which reduce areas for rearing pups and also unbalanced sex-ratios. Their major threats from humans include entanglement and hooking in fishing gear, hunting and the toxoplasmosis disease.
The Hawaiian Monk seal is the official state mammal of Hawaii and The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a scientific and regulatory agency within the US Department of Commerce, have sought to protect the endangered animal through various networks and community programs. In recent years the population has slowly begun to recover and increasing numbers show that conservation efforts are working, boding well for the species.
5. Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle: Population: 1300 – 1500
Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles are native to the Gulf of Mexico and migrate into the Atlantic ocean. The turtle is the smallest sea turtle species and is identifiable by its yellow, white underside and grey and green shell.
The Kemp’s Ridley has been listed under the Endangered Species Conservation Act for 50 years since 1970. Poaching and egg-harvesting first lead to their decline but since then threats such as habitat loss, pollution, and entanglement in shrimp nets, gill nets, long-lines and dredges continue to ravish the population. A partial recovery of the endangered animal was hindered by the Mexican Gulf oil spill of 2010.
The species is protected by various international agreements and treaties, and national laws in Mexico have helped to protect the turtle. Although their population is still low, recent modifications in fishing gear (including specifically designed turtle exclusion devices), changes to fishing practices, and the closing of nesting and hatching areas have positively impacted their numbers.
6. Galapagos penguin – Population: 2, 000
The Galapagos penguin is native to the Galápagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador. The penguin is extremely rare as it’s the only species of penguin to be found north of the equator. They are the second smallest type of penguin and are distinguishable by a white frame-line running from the back of their eyes, around and under their beak.
Their population has been heavily impacted by nature, and specifically the irregular winds and seas caused by the El Niño–Southern Oscillation that reduces the availability of fish prey. The birds are also vulnerable as they have many predators both on land and in the sea. Some predators include cats, dogs and rats that were introduced to the Galápagos island of Isabela by humans. Illegal fishing, oil pollution and depletion of fish stocks are some other immediate threats caused by humans.
The Galápagos Islands are highly protected and conservation acts have ensured that the penguin numbers continue to be monitored. The islands are defended from fishing and pollution, but the penguin population, and future, remains unstable.
7. Florida manatee – Population: 6,500
Florida manatee predominantly live in the waters around Florida in the USA, but can be found as far west as Texas and as far north as Massachusetts. Manatees are large and slow sea mammals with a paddle shaped tail, flat head, snout with whiskers and close, circular eyes. Often referred to as the ‘sea cow’, manatees are herbivores feeding on plants in shallow, warm coastal areas.
The case of the manatee is different to the other species detailed in this list as they have been down-graded from an ‘endangered’ species, to ‘threatened’, however their numbers continue to decline. The main threat to the manatees is mankind and they are often struck by boats, crushed in canal and flood control structures or entangled in crab trap lines. They ingest fishing collateral and floating plastic pollution which they mistake for food. A key threat to the species is the loss of sea grass beds along Florida’s east coast, wiping out an important food source.
The species is protected and have a Government recovery plan. However despite this, 942 of the animals have been found dead this year alone (Sept 2021). District budget cuts and the granting of permits to known polluters of waterways have been attributed to these deaths. It is believed that an over-haul of the management of Florida’s waters is needed to truly save the species.
8. Hawksbill sea turtle – Population: 8,000
The Hawksbill sea turtle lives in the tropical reefs of the Indian, Pacific, and Atlantic Ocean’s. The Hawksbill is recognisable by its tapered head, beak-like mouth and amber patterned shell with light and dark streaks and mottled-brown colours.
Over time the sea turtle has been hunted as a food delicacy and their shells used as decoration, with any material referred to as ‘tortoiseshell’ usually from the Hawksbill. Their lives are further threatened due to pollution and loss of nesting areas because of coastal development. Scientists estimate that their population has declined 80% in the past century. Hatchlings face another problem as they often mistake artificial, beachfront lighting for the moonlit sea which leads them into main roads and risk from predators. Despite their protected status and tracking plans, their numbers continue to fall.
Hawksbills help to maintain the health of fragile, coral reefs and without the species these important eco systems would have additional problems to those they already face from pollution and fishing.
9. Whale shark – Population: 10,000
Whale sharks can be found in all tropical and warm seas around the world, including South Asia, South Africa, Australia, India, the USA and Mexico. Whale sharks are characterised by their long grey bodies, white spots on their upper bodies, and white under-bellies. They are the largest fish in the world and unlike other sharks their mouth is located at the front of the head rather than the underside.
Whale shark global population is estimated to be around 10,000, but due to their world-wide territories these numbers are not certain. They have been categorised as an endangered species due to the impact of fishing with many becoming entangled or captured by mistake. It is thought that their population has decreased 50% since the 1980’s. Hundreds of Whale sharks are illegally killed in China each year for their fins, skins, and oil. A great threat to the species is global warming which is effecting fish and plankton levels on which the Whale shark feed. Climate change is also causing oxygen levels in the water to drop, negatively impacting and changing Whale shark behavioural patterns.
A positive for the animal is that their plight has helped to see an increase in eco-wildlife tourism that, combined with citizen science, is helping Whale shark recovery over time. In recent years new bodies of research have helped the Whale shark gain legal protection in Australia, Belize, Honduras, India, Malaysia, the Maldives, Mexico, the Philippines, Thailand, and the US.
10. Blue whale – Population: 10,000 – 20,000
The Blue whale has populations throughout the world in the Pacific, Atlantic, Antarctic and Indian Oceans. The species is the largest known animal to have ever lived on Earth and is recognised by its long, slender, mottled grey-blue body and dorsal fin.
Historically Blue whales were the hardest hit species by whaling and as with other whale populations theirs has been greatly impacted by fishing, vessel strikes and entanglement. Noise pollution, micro-plastic pollution and oil spills also cause fatalities. Blue whales have an endangered status and are protected by laws around the globe as they are at the top of the food chain and play an important role in the overall health of the ocean environment.
Conservation and satellite tracking initiatives are under way around the world, and education programs aimed at sailors are leading to more responsible fishing practices. Further enforcement and sanctions against countries that hunt whales are also helping.
The inherit truth is that many of the problems faced by these threatened, endangered and critically endangered animals derive from humankind. Our fishing industries, practices and wider pollution have had irreversible impacts on ocean diversity. We depend on the fishing industry for food and the sea for shipping and transport. Our ways of living and societies cause problems in places that we cannot see and, it seems, that there will be more casualties and extinctions to come.
Hope comes from protection, monitoring and advancements in conservation science
Hope comes from protection, monitoring and advancements in science conservation that may help develop solutions and also eco-tourism, donations, sponsorships and citizen-research.
We need to find alternatives to many common, damaging fishing practices, examine existing laws, and make eco-friendly technologies cost-beneficial and widely available to fishers as they are developed. Further policies, laws and enforcement with shipping are necessary, and wider understanding of climate change is key to developing long-term solutions.
Bigger tariffs should be placed on companies that harvest fossil fuels and larger fines when they pollute
Reducing our reliance on fossil fuels like crude oil and gas would drastically aid the oceans. Bigger tariffs should be placed on companies that harvest fuels from the sea and larger fines when they pollute. Stricter building regulations and limitations in areas of coastal development, particularly where endangered species live and breed, should be enforced. Companies that are accountable for ocean damage should be made to contribute towards constructions of alternative habitats. We already have the technology and knowhow to build artificial reefs, islands and waterways.
On personal levels, buying responsibly and sustainably, not interfering with wildlife on vacations, limiting consumption of fuels and reducing personal plastic waste can all contribute to the health of our seas. Spreading awareness, sharing information and educating our young also add towards the future protection of our animals, oceans and planet.
International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species:
International Whaling Commission:
World Wide Fund for Nature:
Sea Turtle Conservancy:
Galapagos Conservation Trust:
Whale and Dolphin Conservation