For a long time, I have wanted to write of the tragedy of the vaquita. This cryptic porpoise has been keeping a spot in my mind and my heart for a number of years, since I first learned of its imminent extinction. The story of the vaquita is so depressing, so overwhelming, that I find it hard to write about. Sadly, it’s also a predictable and all-too-common story.
Right up, here’s the punchline: the vaquita is about to become extinct.
There’s no time to really dawdle on speaking about it.
THE BACK STORY
The vaquita is a porpoise, a relative of dolphins and whales. It is very small, with adults weighing just over 40kg. It is the most endangered marine mammal in the world. It only occurs in the Gulf of California.
The vaquita is incredibly shy, making it extremely difficult to study. In fact, it was only discovered in 1958. Since it’s so difficult to observe, for a long time there just wasn’t much data on it. Some people believed the vaquita to be fictional, the stuff of urban myths.
Acoustic technology has now allowed scientists to properly monitor the population. They do this by listening in to the sounds they make. Vaquita make clicks – similar to what you’d be referring to if speaking of whales’ songs. These clicks are detected by underwater receivers that are laid out in a grid-like fashion, from which scientists can estimate the numbers of individuals making the sounds.
The decline of the vaquita went something like this:
1997: 557 individuals remaining
2008: 245 individuals remaining
2012: 200 individuals remaining
2014: 100 individuals remaining
2016: 60 individuals remaining
2017: 30 individuals remaining
Generally speaking, wildlife conservation is extremely difficult because the causes of a species’ decline are a complex web of influences which conflict with a multitude of human desires, values and activities.
The thing with the vaquita, on the contrary, is that it’s a fairly straightforward and well-understood problem – which seemingly makes direct and effective actions possible. While the vaquita probably has had a small (and isolated) population for a long time, its rapid decline to extinction has one major cause: illegal fishing for totoaba.
Totoaba are themselves an endangered fish species. They are caught for their swim bladders to feed a surging demand in China, where they are used in medicine. A swim bladder is what the fish uses to control its buoyancy in the water column.
Totoaba are caught in gillnets, which also happen to catch vaquita, who then drown. Like all mammals, vaquita need to breathe air.
Vaquita also drown in gillnets used in the shrimp fishery.
The vaquita’s crashing population has spurred a flurry of conservation attempts (and opinions) in recent years.
The first point to make is that curbing totoaba demand in China is an extremely complicated task. In the case of the vaquita, there was simply no talking our way out of this problem. It is too slow a solution. Changing human behaviour and culture is indeed one of conservation’s most challenging, yet important, endeavours – especially when we ourselves are not part of that culture. This is a common story with illegal wildlife trade, and something I’ve previously mentioned for the rhino horn trade.
A straightforward problem does not necessarily have a straightforward solution.
In a bold and necessary move, the Mexican government stepped in and banned gillnet fishing for totoaba. It was thought that a cessation of gillnetting would possibly be enough to the save the species.
However, a legislative move doesn’t actually guarantee cessation, particularly if enforcement is weak. That’s the story here. Gillnetting has continued, and vaquita are still drowning.
Enforcement has been ramped up, with the military involved, and Sea Shepherd also having a strong presence in the Gulf.
But with the numbers falling so rapidly, and extinction likely within the very near future, something else had to be done.
Considering all options, scientists reached the difficult decision to attempt to capture all remaining vaquita. They would catch them, and bring them to a sea pen where they would be protected from gillnets, at least until the time when they could be safely released back the wild. This was to buy the vaquita some time. All the science indicates that extinction is unavoidable if vaquita remain in their wild habitat, as it is.
This is not a decision anyone wanted to make. It’s not something that was taken lightly. Everyone understood the risks of this move. But despite all, it was the only remaining chance that the vaquita had. Efforts like this have been done successfully for other species, such as the Californian condor.
In late 2017, vaquitaCPR began capture efforts. This team included the world’s foremost vaquita experts, specialists in captive animal husbandry, and highly-trained veterinarians.
Soon after operations began, a young vaquita was caught. Although there was some uncertainty about whether the calf would have been weaned from its mother, the team made an assessment and decided to bring it back to the sea pen.
The calf did not take well to this. It became stressed to the point of possible death, and the team decided to release it back to the wild. It was taken back to the place where it was caught.
It was some time before another vaquita was caught. Eventually, an female adult was captured, and taken to the sea pen. Like the calf, unfortunately, this adult vaquita did not take to its new environment.
Having experienced the distress of the calf previously, the veterinarians administered drugs to keep the vaquita calm, but the effect appeared to be too severe. It quickly became apparent that the vaquita was too sedated. Other drugs were administered to reverse this effect, which had the opposite, but equally dire, consequences. The animal became extremely distressed. The team once again decided to release this individual.
But this vaquita did not recover. Its behaviour did not improve. After a few intense hours, this vaquita died.
The vaquitaCPR team was broken – for this vaquita’s death is not merely the death of an individual. It is the death of a species.
The species’ intolerance of captivity has resulted in the team suspending its capture attempts.
I believe the team did the right thing by attempting to capture the vaquitas. It’s a tragedy that it was not successful.
I feel deeply for the people involved in the vaquita recovery efforts, especially the scientists who have spent their entire careers working on the cause. I know what it’s like to be kept up at night for the worry of the future of your study species. I can’t imagine what it’s like when everything you’ve worked for ends in extinction.
The demise of the vaquita speaks to our collective ignorance and selfishness when it comes to saving species. We did this. And we are still doing this to countless other species.
Is the vaquita another species that will become famous only for its extinction?
It’s a tale that’s far too common.
Here we have an animal that humans kill for whatever reason, either directly (as in the vaquita) or indirectly (as in habitat alterations, and the like). That animal is a long-lived, slow-growing species. It has few offspring. The species is likely also quite intelligent, and lives in complex societies. It is sentient, has relationships, and has the ability to suffer. They might be very specialised, restricted to a certain kind of food or habitat. These traits, which have served them very well for eons, mean that their populations can’t handle high levels of mortality. With high mortality, populations crash, become fragmented and inbred. Conservation efforts, if they exist, are largely ineffectual, or come too late, or funds are too small. Eventually the species becomes extinct.
Then things just continue on.
Once the vaquita is extinct, will gillnetting continue unhindered? The major hurdle removed? And what of the extinction of the totoaba? Which species will be next?
YOU CAN HELP
Although the vaquita’s extinction seems inevitable now, the recovery team is still active. They are considering their options.
Now that you know the story, here’s what you can do:
1. Donate to vaquitaCPR.
2. Spread the word far and wide. Don’t stop. Get all over social media with #vaquitaCPR. Demand action.
Read here: https://www.vaquitacpr.org/
Listen here: http://wildlensinc.org/eoc-137-lessons-heartbreak/
Watch here: http://vaquitafilm.com/