By: Alexa Kownacki, Ph.D. Student, OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Geospatial Ecology of Marine Megafauna Lab
When I first learned of the critically endangered vaquita in early 2015, there were an estimated 97 individuals remaining as reported by CIRVA* (Morell 2014). I was a recent graduate with a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology, and I, of all people, had never heard of the vaquita. Today, there are an estimated 19 vaquita left (Roth 2019).
The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is a small porpoise endemic to the Sea of Cortez in the northern region of the Gulf of California, Mexico. It is the most endangered marine mammal and has been for many years, and yet, I had not heard of the vaquita. It wasn’t until I listened to a lunchtime seminar hosted by NOAA Fisheries, that I heard about the porpoise. As a young scientist, “in the field”, I was shocked to realize that I was just learning about an animal, let alone a cetacean, actively going extinct in my lifetime. I believe it’s our job to inform those around us of news in our expertise, and I had failed. I wasn’t informed. As much as I tried in the past four years to describe the decline of the smallest cetacean to anyone who’d listen, I was only reaching a few people at a time. But, today, the vaquita is finally capturing the public’s eye thanks to celebrity support and a feature-length film.
From executive producer, Leonardo DiCaprio, comes the Sundance Film Festival Audience Award winner, “Sea of Shadows”. The story of the vaquita truly is an “eco-thriller” and one worth watching. This is not your typical plot line of an endangered species tragically going extinct without action. The vaquita’s story boasts big-name players, such as the Mexican Navy, internationally recognized scientists, Mexican cartels, Chinese mafia, celebrities, the National Marine Mammal Foundation, and Sea Shepherd. At the center of this documentary is the elusive vaquita. The vaquita is not hunted, in fact, this species is not desirable for fisherman. The animal is not aggressive and, in contrast, is notoriously shy, only surfacing to breathe. Furthermore, its name roughly translates into “little cow” because of the rings around its eyes and its docile nature. So, why is this cute creature on the road to extinction? The answer: the wrong place at the wrong time.
The vaquita occupy a small part of the Sea of Cortez where totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), a large fish in the drum family, is also endemic. If you’re wondering what a small porpoise and a large fish have in common, then you’d be close to recognizing that is the key to understanding this tragedy. Both species are roughly the same size, one to two meters in length with similar girths. The totoaba, although said to have tender meat, is caught for only one organ: the swim bladder. Now referred to as the “cocaine of the sea”, the dried swim bladders of the totoaba are sold to Mexican cartels who then export the product to China. Once in China, illegal markets sell the swim bladders for up to $100,000USD. Unfortunately, the nets used to illegally catch totoaba, also catch the vaquita. The porpoise has no economic value to the fishermen and therefore are tossed as bycatch. The vaquita is the innocent bystander in a war for money and power.
Watching a charismatic species severely decline because of human greed is horrific. The film, however, focuses on the effort of a few incredible organizations that band together in the fight to save the vaquita. Moreover, the multimillion-dollar project, Vaquita CPR, is still ongoing. On a more positive note, in October of 2019, scientists spotted six vaquita during continued conservation and monitoring efforts (Blust & Desk 2019). The path to saving a critically endangered species, especially one that is thought not to do well in captivity, is challenging. The vaquita’s recovery path has many complicated connections which for what appears to be an uphill battle. But, we, the people, are responsible for this. We must support research and conservation by using our voice to share what is happening, for a porpoise and for the world.
*Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita)
Blust, Kendal, and Fronteras Desk. “Photo Sparks Increased Concern over Fishing in Vaquita Refuge.” Arizona Public Media, 25 Oct. 2019, https://news.azpm.org/p/news-topical-nature/2019/10/25/160806-photo-sparks-increased-concern-over-fishing-in-vaquita-refuge/.
Morell, Virginia. “Vaquita Porpoise Faces Imminent Extinction-Can It Be Saved?” National Geographic, 15 Aug. 2014, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/8/140813-vaquita-gulf-california-mexico-totoaba-gillnetting-china-baiji/.
Roth, Annie. “The ‘Little Cow’ of the Sea Nears Extinction.” National Geographic, 17 Sept. 2019, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2019/09/vaquita-the-porpoise-familys-smallest-member-nears-extinction/#close.