Saving the Vaquita

A creature swims in the upper Gulf of California, Mexico that occurs nowhere else on the planet. Less than five feet long, with subtle hues of gray and white, this animal is almost never seen, and was only discovered in the 1950’s. Most people have never heard of it, yet it is the world’s most endangered marine mammal, with fewer than 85 individuals remaining. What is this mystery creature?

The vaquita, Phocoena sinus, is a tiny porpoise (porpoises are similar to dolphins, but smaller and without a prominent beak) that only lives in a 1,400 square mile area in the northernmost tip of the Gulf of California. The gulf is also known as the Sea of Cortez, and is a strip of sea between mainland Mexico and the Baja California peninsula; an aqua oasis juxtaposed between lifeless deserts. The locals in this region rely on one career over any other: fishing. The Sea of Cortez abounds with fish and shrimp, and the area’s residents capitalize on this resource. There is a problem, however. The cheapest and easiest way to catch fish and shrimp is with drift gillnets, nearly invisible fishing nets that are extremely efficient at catching everything that swims their way. Everything, including the vaquita. The vaquita has been declining for as long as the species has been known to science, and the primary reason for this decline is accidental entanglement in gillnets, known as bycatch. The vaquita is not the target catch for the fishermen, it is simply collateral damage in the race to catch as much seafood as possible. Originally, most vaquita bycatch occurred when people were fishing for the totoaba, an enormous fish in the drum family. The totoaba is endangered in its own right, so this fishing was soon outlawed. However, in the past few years, the illegal demand for totoaba has skyrocketed again, causing a sharp decline in both species. In China, the swim bladder organ of the totoaba is regarded as a symbol of wealth, and is also believed to have medicinal properties. A single totoaba swim bladder can fetch thousands of U.S. dollars on the black market, which is too good to resist for the Mexican fishermen.

So, what is the solution to this problem? Get the gillnets out of the vaquita’s range. The upper Sea of Cortez is a remarkably rich, healthy, and diverse marine ecosystem, with no other serious threats to the vaquita. If this one danger can be removed, the recovery of the vaquita is virtually guaranteed. On the other hand, if the gillnets persist for even a few more years, the vaquita will be gone forever. Due to remarkable efforts by conservationists and worried citizens alike, the Mexican government has announced a two-year ban on gillnets in the vaquita’s entire range beginning in April 2015. This gives scientists time to figure out how many vaquitas are left, as well as to perfect and distribute trawl nets that do not kill the timid vaquitas. The nets are vaquita-safe because the loud noise of the mechanism scares the shy porpoises away, and if one does get caught, there is a hatch on top that will allow the vaquita to escape. It has been determined that it will take a ban of at least 20-30 years for the vaquita’s numbers to reach sustainable levels, so while this ban is a good first step, it will not be enough to save the vaquita if the gillnets are back in the water in two years. In addition, the ban will be useless if it is not efficiently enforced by boats and drones. Illegal fishing is rampant in Mexico, and will not go away just because of the ban. Pressure must be kept on Mexico’s officials to ensure they follow through with their admirable promises, and that they extend the ban so that the vaquita has enough time to make a full recovery. The survival of the vaquita would be one of the most amazing conservation success stories in history, and it would demonstrate that all hope is not lost for our endangered wildlife.

You can help save this species by signing our petition to the Mexican government: http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/save-thelittle-vaquita?source=c.fwd&r_by=12069499

About the Author: Aidan Bodeo-Lomicky is ‘a boy on a mission’ to secure a future for a small and rare marine treasure—the Vaquita. At 15 years-of-age this impassioned conservationist has published a book about the species and maintains a website filled with inspiration and information on the Vaquita. You can follow this novice naturalist on his quest to save the Vaquita at: http://vlogvaquita.com Aidan is also a member of the International A-Team For Wildlife, an environmental education non-profit offering all youth facilitation and support with their concerns for wildlife, the home of an award-winning council of prodigies in conservation. www.A-TeamForWildlife.org

Aidan represents a new breed of naturalist—our youth, curious yet informed to such a degree as to bely their years. As part of our ethos, Bare Essentials embraces passion and wisdom, encouraging ambition and the value of novice naturalists.

Saving the Vaquita

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Inga Yandell
Explorer and photo-journalist, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide educational resources and a platform for science exploration.
Inga Yandell

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