By Richard Conniff
One thing for which we should give profound thanks this year is the success of environmental action at stopping or slowing the killing of many endangered marine mammals. As a result, populations of humpback whales, bowhead whales, gray whales, and other species are now rebuilding. But this Thanksgiving, one of the world’s 78 cetacean species still faces its do-or-die moment.
The vaquita, a small porpoise found only in the Gulf of California, is the world’s most endangered marine mammal. Fewer than 100 exist in the wild. Without drastic and immediate action, this species will almost certainly go the way of the Chinese river dolphin, or baiji--declared extinct after a 2006 survey of the Yangtze River turned up zero dolphins. It was the only cetacean humans are known to have snuffed out: a global moment of infamy, not just for China, but for us all. In a final effort not to share that shame, Mexico is expected to announce this week a last desperate effort to save the vaquita.
The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is a strange and elusive creature, only discovered by scientists in 1958. It grows to a length of four feet, has a blunt, balloon-like face, and lives by feeding on fish and crustaceans in the shallow waters of the Gulf. People almost never see them alive. Vaquita sightings occur almost exclusively when fishermen pull them up entangled and drowned in the gillnets they use to catch shrimp, mostly for the American market, or to catch the endangered totoaba fish, illegally, for the Chinese market. Sightings are likely to get a lot more rare by 2018. Without major change, according to a report released this summer by the Mexico-based International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), that’s when the last of the vaquitas will die.
Scientists have been tracking the vaquita’s declining numbers since 1990, and timely action back then could have made a difference. In 1991, the International Whaling Commission recommended a series of protective measures, including a ban on totoaba fishing, education of fishers, and development of alternative fishing methods.
“If those recommendations had been followed, there is little doubt that the vaquita’s situation would now have been largely resolved,” the CIRVA report concluded. In 2005, the Mexican government belatedly established a 500-square-mile Vaquita Refuge Area in the Gulf. It also undertook a $30 million effort to buy out fishing permits, pay fishermen not to fish within the Vaquita Refuge, and replace the deadly gillnets with “vaquita-safe” fishing gear. The efforts appeared to work, up to a point: The annual rate of decline in the population eased down from 10 percent to less than 5 percent. But in the last three years that rate has shot up again to more than 18 percent per year. With only about 100 vaquitas left, each percentage point represents one more porpoise killed—and one giant step closer to extinction.
The sudden increase is mostly due to illegal fishing for totoaba, said Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, coordinator of marine mammal research and conservation at Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change. Just as the killing of vaquitas finally began to slow down, he said, “suddenly, we had this explosion of illegal totoaba fishing.”
Fishermen harvest the swim bladders from the critically endangered totoaba because buyers in China prize them as delicacies and as folk medicine for fertility, circulation and skin conditions. They can sell for thousands of dollars each on the black market. To catch them, fishermen used the same gillnets that are so deadly and effective at ensnaring vaquitas. For impoverished fishermen, the money is irresistible. “Imagine you threw millions of dollars from a building in New York City,” said Rojas-Bracho. Even if it was against the law to stop, most people would get out of their cars and grab the cash—and who could blame them?
Unfortunately, trying to enforce the ban on totoaba fishing has proved beyond the powers of the Mexican government. The Gulf is a big piece of water for understaffed and underpaid conservation agencies to protect. Because it’s illegal, totoaba fishing also takes place mostly under cover of darkness. In addition, powerful drug cartels are reportedly profiting from the lucrative totoaba trade. As is so often the case in Mexico, that can make the rule of law more a theory than a fact.
Media outlets are now reporting that the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources will make an announcement about the fate of the vaquita on Nov. 27. Government outlets have not yet confirmed this. But now is the time to act, said Zak Smith, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He called for a total exclusion of gillnetting from a large portion of the Gulf. “You can’t talk about ‘vaquita friendly’ fishing any more, because there can’t be any. It has to all end,” Smith said.
The CIRVA report released this summer by a committee headed by Rojas-Bracho put it simply: “CIRVA strongly recommends that the government of Mexico enact emergency regulations establishing a gillnet exclusion zone covering the full range of the vaquita—not simply the existing Refuge—starting in September 2014.” It also recommended increased enforcement, efforts to reduce the trade in totoaba swim bladders, and a program to provide an alternative living to communities that now depend on legal gillnet fishing.
Will the government finally get serious about the vaquita? “Even if we get a great plan,” Smith said, “will it be backed up by adequate enforcement?” The alternative is to allow the vaquita to follow the Chinese river dolphin into oblivion.
It may not seem like there’s much the rest of us can do for the vaquita this Thanksgiving, other than pray. But the organization ¡Viva Vaquita urges you to sign its petition on Change.org. Writing to the Ministry of Natural Resources, the Mexican president, and even to the United Nations might also help. The likely extinction of the vaquita is also one more reason to stop buying shrimp, or other fish caught with gillnets.
Finally, it’s worth stepping back to ask why so much of the illegal trafficking in wildlife—and the threat of extinction in the wild to elephants, rhinos, pangolins, tigers, musk deer, Himalayan black bears, and so many other species—leads back time and again to China. When you start your holiday shopping this year and see that “Made in China” label on almost every product, ask yourself: Is this really a country that you want your money to support?