Jhe vaquita, the world’s smallest marine mammal, has long been on the brink of extinction. The population of porpoises marked with black ringed eyes and smiling, upturned mouths has declined by 99% over the past decade.
Now scientists say their future is more precarious than ever, after a recent survey revealed fewer than 10 individuals remain in the waters of their limited home range between Baja California and Mexico.
But some say there is still hope for endangered species that have persisted against all odds.
“We’re looking for a needle in the haystack – but we know the needle is there,” says Barbara Taylor, marine conservation biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, noting how researchers can still hear their high-pitched calls and their echolocation clicks. , collected on auditory monitoring equipment placed throughout their habitat. Taylor has tracked endangered species that have already been driven out of existence, and she’s determined to keep the shy little cetacean from joining that list.
The task will not be easy. The vaquitas continue to face a host of threats, including a lucrative illegal fishing industry, political apathy, and conservation measures that have been largely ineffective.
The dangers of the fishing industry
Vaquitas share the Gulf of California with coveted sea creatures including the totoaba, an endangered fish with perceived medicinal properties that sells on the Chinese black market for thousands of dollars. Vaquitas, alongside sea turtles and whales, can easily become entangled in the huge mesh nets called “gillnets” used by totoaba poachers and local fishermen.
The United States has sought to pressure Mexico over this. On Thursday, the office of the U.S. Trade Representative announced it was seeking consultations with the Mexican government on whether environmental commitments made under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement – which replaced NAFTA in 2020 – which aimed to protect the vaquitas had fallen. short.
The United States also has decreed embargoes on the Mexican seafood industry, including banning the importation of seafood typically caught in gillnets in Vaquita territory. Last year, the United States also stopped importing all Mexican wild shrimp, citing concerns over the protection of sea turtles.
The Mexican government has banned totoaba fishing and banned the use of gillnets in the area, but few of the promised penalties have been enforced. Efforts have also been made to compensate fishermen who replace unsafe gear, but funds have not been fairly distributed, frustrating fishermen who have been left behind.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who oversaw a policy reversal and rolled back law enforcement in the protected area, decried sanctions against Mexico’s seafood industry and international interventions.
Meanwhile, as law enforcement by authorities waned, illegal fishing flourished. Backed by the cartels, the expansion of the totoaba market has coincided with a drop of around 50% in the number of vaquitas per year. International defenders struggled to turn the tide.
“When we were there the last three times, there were gillnets everywhere,” Taylor says of survey trips that took place in 2018, 2019 and earlier this year.
Without strong consequences or sufficient compensation, there is little motivation to change. Called the “cocaine of the sea,” totoaba prices far exceed anything anglers could earn at outboard markets. Cartels cashed in, further increasing incentives to ignore regulations. “There was no one trying to hide anything from us,” Taylor said.
Conservation versus local economy
Even those who appreciate the danger the vaquitas face have raised questions about the value of protecting them at the expense of local livelihoods. Local economies and culture are closely tied to fishing in the vaquita range. Even before the totoaba market exploded, gillnets were used to catch blue shrimp and other species that live in the biodiverse waters.
“The government still hasn’t given us a solution or an effective way to provide for our families without going fishing illegally,” said Ramón Franco Díaz, president of a federation of fishing cooperatives in San Felipe, New York. Times last fall. “Children need food and clothes.
“For many in the local community, the vaquita is a nuisance and the sooner it goes extinct the better because then they can poach unhindered,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, senior researcher at the Center for security, strategy and technology. Foreign Policy Program at Brookings. She noted that these problems had existed in the Gulf of California for decades, before foreign demand for totoaba peaked, and points to the “enormous challenge” inherent in environmental conservation. “The question of how to fund conservation – pay communities not to poach – is something we’re really going to be grappling with on a larger scale,” she said.
Vaquitas have never been particularly abundant. They tend to produce calves only once every two years and take decades to mature and reproduce. But Felbab-Brown says the lack of law enforcement in the area has only exacerbated the problem. “The meaning is anything goes,” she said. “Now in a situation where we have 7 or 8 vaquitas left.”
Without local support and enforcement, conservationists say it will be even harder to pull the species back from the brink, especially now that time is running out.
“The reason it really doesn’t work is that there is no governance to impose another way of fishing and to support and compensate fishermen who fish in a way that would allow the vaquita to survive,” said Francis Gulland, commissioner at the US Marine Mammal. Commission, who added that working to gain community buy-in is a much more effective strategy than trying to enforce top-down bans. It’s a lesson she hopes she can learn in time to spare other species, which may soon also be in precipitous decline.
“We tend not to pay attention until we’re in total crisis mode,” she says, noting that conservation efforts only really started when there were only a few hundred vaquitas left. When the population dwindled further, defenders attempted to catch vaquitas to move them to protected areas, but the program was quickly halted after it resulted in the death of one vaquita. “If there had been 10,000 animals, we would have had time to learn what to do to improve techniques,” Gulland said. “They could have been moved to a protected area, but it was too late.”
There is still time to save the vaquita, she says, but not much. “If we can keep them from being caught in nets,” she says, “they will survive.”