Is there any way to stop the extinction of the world’s rarest marine mammal? It’s a pressing question for conservationists.
They’ve posed the same question of the white rhino, saiga antelope and golden lion tamarin with varying degrees of success. Conservation is no easy task, and saving an endangered species of marine life comes with a unique set of challenges that complicates the undertaking.
Compared to the white rhino or saiga antelope, the vaquita is a relatively new discovery. It’s the most recent cetacean — a grouping that includes whales and dolphins — to be recognized by modern science. It was only in 1966 that a senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recovered the first full specimen for observation.
Since then, the vaquita population has only continued to diminish. Earlier in the decade, an estimated 200 vaquitas inhabited the Northern Gulf of California in Mexico — shallow waters that make up their natural habitat. Today, fewer than 30 of these rare porpoises remain.
The Mexican government put forth an effort to slow the decline of the vaquita’s remaining numbers. Since 2004, they established a Vaquita Refuge to protect the areas where the vaquita was most common. Fishermen who relied on the Northern Gulf of California for their trade received compensation for fishing elsewhere.
But the problem only worsened, prompting Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to issue an emergency ban on gillnets in an attempt to preserve the species. This failed to slow the vaquita’s rate of extinction, and it seemed as though nothing could stop the porpoise from vanishing entirely.
What Caused the Vaquita to Disappear?
Like many species close to extinction, the vaquita is a victim of the illegal wildlife trade. Though not intentionally. The true target of poachers is the totoaba, an endangered fish in high demand for its valuable swim bladder — an item that can sell on the black market for thousands of dollars.
Similar to elephant ivory and rhino horns, the Chinese believe that a totoaba’s swim bladder has medicinal properties. In an attempt to collect and later smuggle these parts through Mexico and the U.S., criminals employ gillnets that have the adverse secondary effect of ensnaring vaquitas.
Beyond their use in criminal activity, gillnets are a standard tool for regular fishermen. In fact, they’re the primary fishing method used to capture fish and shrimp. With the prevalence of these nets and their popularity in the industry, enforcing a ban presents a time- and labor-intensive chore.
What Will Bring the Vaquita Back?
Last year, an international team of experts launched VaquitaCPR, a final bid to save the porpoise from joining the ranks of the dodo, quagga and Tasmanian tiger. Their operation was essentially a search and rescue with the existence of the vaquita hanging in the balance.
Those involved in the mission intended to locate, rescue and temporarily relocate any remaining vaquitas to a safe area off the coast of San Felipe. Once they were no longer under threat in their native habitat, VaquitaCPR would restore the animals to their rightful home in the Northern Gulf of California.
Dr. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho said, “We realize that capturing even a few vaquitas will be very difficult, but if we don’t try, the vaquita will disappear from the planet forever.” Other conservationists share this conviction —a belief in the sanctity of wildlife that motivates them to protect vulnerable animals.
Unfortunately for Dr. Rojas-Bracho and his associates, the vaquitas that were found and transported to the new sanctuary had a negative reaction to the change in their environment. This disturbance resulted in the death of an adult female and the suspension of the program.
Mexican and American scientists have come to the conclusion that their mission to save the vaquita from extinction has all but failed. The only opportunity to preserve the species was to find and collect any of the animals that still survived and then move them to an enclosed space where they could be better protected. But it was an unsuccessful endeavor with unforeseen consequences.
Now, as more and more vaquita corpses are found — washed up on shore or caught in nets — the possibility that scientists can catch and secure a healthy male and female of the species is slim to none. Some researchers have even speculated that the last vaquita is already dead.
Still, there is some technology that holds potential for the future of even lost species, although the genetic research involved has a very long road to true viability.
What to Learn From the Vaquita
The vaquita’s decline is almost a direct result of human interference. It serves as a powerful example of the effect that we as a species have on the flora and fauna around us. It should also serve as a wake-up call to move our attention toward other endangered animals at risk of extinction.
It is our shared responsibility, to the greatest extent that we are able, to minimize our impact on the environment. As the human population develops, moving forward and growing outward, we must remain conscious of the leopard, orangutan, rhinoceros and vaquita.