If a school of porpoise were literal, the remaining vaquitas wouldn’t even fill one classroom. So brace yourself for this one, keeping in mind that valium also starts with a “v”.
This “little cow” of the Gulf of California loves to romp in shallow-ish water and munch on squid, fish and crustaceans. The black ring around its eyes and black lips give it a panda or goth-like appearance, and given its situation, both are sadly relevant. In the last 5 years alone its population has plummeted 90% to fewer than 30 individuals, and they’re all from the same small population.
A vaquita-specific hitman could do no better, but even more tragic is that it’s not even the main target. The dried swim bladder of the totoaba fish is considered among other things as an aphrodisiac in China, and just a kilo of this stuff can fetch up to £74,000. The wall-like gill nets used to catch said fish are almost invisible in the water, and the vaquita ends up tangled and drowned.
So in a very literal sense, it’s dying out thanks to a group of unresponsive genitalia. But enough fist-shaking: what can we do about it?
You might have come across the Save the Vaquita campaign on social media last year, which called for a ban on gill nets. Soon after, the Mexican Federal Register published a permanent one, making both their use and transport illegal. To protect the last few vaquitas, and hopefully create a captive breeding colony, the government also set up the organisation VaquitaCPR, with the aim of keeping the animals in the sea sanctuary El Nido (“the nest”) until the nets had been removed. US Navy dolphins were drafted in to help track them, and yes, those are actually a thing.
As you can probably guess, things didn’t exactly work out, and not because dolphins and porpoises have been known to play a rough version of tennis.
On their first expedition, VaquitaCPR caught a six-month-old female. Unfortunately she didn’t quite agree with being held captive, and when her health deteriorated, they released her. Their second attempt, this time a mature female of breeding age, went even further south: although fine at first, her condition took a turn for the worse, and when they set her free, she swam right back to them before dying. Unsurprisingly, all attempts at capture have been suspended.
Not everyone agreed with the net ban either. Sea Shepherd, for example, felt this penalised the law-abiding fishermen, who were already under enough economic pressure, and that this inspired anything but good will towards conservation efforts. Regardless, Sea Shepherd were held responsible for the ban, and some locals chose to express their anger through the medium of arson and molotov cocktails.
The only hope for the vaquita now is the removal of the remaining gill nets, and use of other, vaquita-friendly fishing nets in order to land catch. By November 2017, with the help of local Pangueros fishermen, WWF had already removed 432 “ghost” gill nets. It sounds bleak, but over the next year or so, they might not be the only ghosts in the Gulf of California’s waters.
Latin: Phocoena sinus
What? A cute porpoise
Where? Gulf of California, Mexico
How big? Up 1.5 m/ 5 ft long
Endangered? It’s the most endangered marine mammal in the world, so that’s an enormous yes.
Probable motto: I wish I didn’t look like I was smiling.
Dear God that sounds awful. Is there anything I can do to help?
We’re on the brink of extinguishing yet another species, and captive-breeding probably isn’t going to work. So, all we have left is removing the threat and helping the vaquita’s home.
If you’re angry enough to help, you can check out these organisations below:
Just to prove I’m not fibbing
BBC. 2018. “Rare attacks by dolphins on porpoises photographed“. BBC News.
Clifton, Merritt. 2017. “Vaquita captures suspended after death of female of breeding age“. Animals 24-7.
Echeverria, Monica. 2017. “Saving vaquita: retrieving ghost nets as dramatic new operation gets underway“. WWF.org.
McKie, Robin. 2017. “Vaquita porpoise facing extinction after £3 million rescue plan abandoned“. The Guardian.
Morell, Virginia. 2014. “The vaquita porpoise faces imminent extinction – can it be saved?” National Geographic.
“Phocoena sinus“. No date. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Sea Shepherd. 2018. “Sea Shepherd works with legal fishermen to protect the vaquita“. Seashepherd.org.
VaquitaCPR. No date. “Our story“. VaquitaCPR.org.
WildAid. No date. “Vaquitas“. Wildaid.org.
WWF. No date. “Vaquita“. WWF.org.
WWF Stories. 2017. “The vaquita: 5 facts about the most endangered marine mammal“. WWF.org.