The Case of the Vanishing Vaquita

Imagine a porpoise – smaller than a bottlenose dolphin, with big black rings round it’s eyes and a line across it’s mouth that makes it look as if it is smiling.

Let me introduce you to the vaquita.

Vaquita

The vaquita is the world’s smallest marine cetacean and it lives solely in the Gulf of California, Mexico. It weighs around 55 kg (1kg less than me!), with females reaching up to just  1.5m and males 1.4m in length (TINY!)

The vaquita is also the world’s most endangered small marine cetacean. It is categorised as critically endangered because it’s thought that there are only 30 left in the wild.

That’s right. 30.

It’s main threat?

Man.

The habitat for the vaquita has been altered and shrunk due to the damming of the Colorado River in the US. But the main, biggest threat to the vaquita is fishing.

It’s thought that each year between 40 and 80 vaquitas are killed as by-catch in huge gill nets – unable to surface to breathe, they drown, caught up in nets that weren’t even meant for them.

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The gill nets are mostly illegal – used by fishermen trying to catch another endangered marine species called the totoaba fish. This 300 pound fish is highly desirable in China – it’s swim bladder is used in Chinese medicine to make a fish soup which is believed to ‘boost fertility’. Shockingly, just one kilogram of totoaba fish can be sold on the Chinese black market for around $20,000.

The vaquita, highly elusive by nature, has been a largely unknown species before now. It’s only over the last few years that the species has been brought into the spotlight, thanks to scientists and activists who realised that if action isn’t taken soon, there will be no more vaquitas.

Without immediate action, they will go extinct.

Vaquita numbers have been decreasing for years but recently the numbers have plummeted. In November 2016, a group of researchers belonging to the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, estimated that there were only around 30 left in the wild. But earlier on in the year, they’d estimated that there were 60. The numbers had halved in a matter of months. In five years, the population has decreased by 90%.

So what can be done?

Mexican government have actually taken huge steps to try to protect a native species from extinction.

In 2005, a vaquita refuge was established. Unfortunately, fishing boats were still photographed within the refuge, ignoring the intended safe zone.

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Then, in May 2015, the Mexican President called for a two year ban on gill nets across the roaming area of the vaquita .Unfortunately, monitoring this proved difficult and illegal totoaba fishing still caused the population to plummet.

Some environmental groups are now trying to educate the local fishermen and encourage them to fish elsewhere, with different methods. They’re even trying to pay off some fishermen.

More extremely, because numbers are so frighteningly low, the US Navy are attempting to capture live vaquitas and keep them in a protective pen off the cost of San Felipe, safe from harm. Some experts say this is the only hope we have at saving the species, but others worry that this is too risky. If the few remaining females die during capture, the species will be doomed.

It’s crazy how we’ve driven such a beautiful, reclusive animal so close to extinction seemingly without the wider world realising. And now multiple approaches have to be used in an attempt to save it – with none of them guaranteed to work. Is it too little too late?

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What’s crazier still, is that although the Mexican government seem on board with the attempts to save the vaquita, the message clearly isn’t getting through to the fishermen.

In March this year, the fight to protect the species turned violent. A gang of dozens of fishermen, angry at the ban of some types of net and fed up with delays they’d faced after applying for fishing permits, overturned environment inspectors’ trucks, burning and destroying property. This property belonged to the offices for environmental protection, the country’s fisheries council and the commission for protected natural areas. Luckily no inspectors were hurt but criminal damages are being filed.

The situation is dire, there’s no doubt about that. Can we save the 30 remaining vaquitas, and ensure they’re not the last 30 ever to be seen on the planet?

It’s hard to say. But once again it seems the problem lies in three areas:

  • Education (of the fishermen about the dangers and implications of their illegal fishing)
  • Money (with regards to the huge financial incentive behind fishing for totoaba fish)
  • Demand (once again, we’re looking at the Chinese black market, and the belief that an animal holds ‘powers’ which can be transferred through the act of consumption)

While the future for the vaquita is bleak, the more voices that speak out for species like this, the better. It shows governments that they do need to act, and it often gives conservation groups the strength to do more. Whatever happens to the vaquita, let’s hope we learn from this dire situation and prevent the same thing happening to yet another creature.

For more information on the vaquita visit WWF or Porpoise.org where you can also donate, share their message or adopt a vaquita. To help those monitoring the area where the vaquita live, visit Sea Shepherd.

 

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