The Vaquita, threatened by distant appetites


Marine biologist Barbara Taylor of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla is passionate about saving the world’s endangered cetaceans, and her focus in recent years has been on the Vaquita, a recently discovered porpoise in the Sea of Cortez now facing imminent extinction.

Taylor’s passion for saving the rare mammal extends beyond the laboratory and field research to the other passion of her life, art [she has her own gallery where you can purchase her graphics and jewellery featuring the Vaquita]. Here’s one example:

BLOG Taylor

What’s driving the extinction of the Vaquita is the same thing driving the extinctions of so many other endangered creatures: Chinese hunger for the organs of rare animals alleged to possess magical powers, most frequently, as with the horn of the rhinoceros and the penis of the tiger, those alleged to restore virility to aging Asian wangs.

But it’s not lust for the Vaquita that’s driving its extinction; rather it’s the hunger for part of another, similarly sized inhabitant of those same waters, with the Vaquita die-off only a matter of collateral damage.

From Newsweek:

A small fiberglass boat rocks on the surface of the water a few hundred yards from shore about 100 miles down Baja California from the U.S.-Mexico border. Two men in yellow slickers and rubber boots stand in the boat, pulling a loosely woven net from the water with their hands. Tangled in the gillnet are four dull silver fish about 5 feet long, each weighing more than 100 pounds. Known as totoaba, these fish live only in the upper Gulf of California and are considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), Mexico and the U.S. Since 1976, their trade has been prohibited under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora since 1976.

And yet the fishermen cut open each fish, remove the swim bladder—a gas-filled organ that helps the fish control its depth—and toss the rest overboard. They may harvest 100 totoaba bladders tonight and earn anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000, depending on current market prices.

Buyers dry these bladders and ship them to markets in Hong Kong, where the price for the flat, yellowish, dinner-plate-sized organs sometimes goes as high as six figures. The Chinese buy them as gifts to cement business relationships, for use in traditional banquet dishes or to eat for their supposed medicinal and nutritional benefits. Totoaba bladders are a substitute for those of the giant yellow croaker (aka Chinese bahaba), which was fished nearly to extinction decades ago.

The imminent loss of the Vaquita has drawn the attention of wildlife conservation organizations, including one formed specifically to save the small cetacean.

VivaVaquita.org is a seven-year-old collaboration on the part of activists from several nonprofits, including the Cetos Research Organization, Save The Whales, the Monterey Bay chapter of the American Cetacean Society, ACS National, the Oceanographic Environmental Research Society, the Muskwa Club, and V-Log.

From Viva Vaquita’s Thomas A. Jefferson:

Clearly, despite the tremendous efforts of Sea Shepherd, and the dedication of Mexican authorities, illegal gillnetting continues to thrive in the upper Gulf.  The fishermen appear to have learned how to fish in secret, by operating mostly at night, and this makes ones wonder if this was going on even when so many eyes were on the gulf last autumn (eyes are not good at seeing in the dark!).  Enforcement efforts to date have not been nearly enough to stop the slaughter…

The good news is that Mexico recently announced that it will be stepping up patrols, including some night-time enforcement.  This is certainly an improvement, but one must wonder whether these increases can overcome the tremendous economic incentive that the Chinese markets are providing to encourage illegal gillnet fishing for totoaba.  We can only hope so, and we must continue our efforts to bring the vaquita’s plight to the world before it is too late.

Remember, Saturday 9 July is this year’s International Save the Vaquita Day.  We plan to have more venues than ever, with the addition of some new locations, and also the addition of new attractions, such as live music this year!  Mark your calendar, and tell all your friends about it.  Also, keep your eyes open for an upcoming story about the vaquita on CBS’s 60 Minutes!  And the new abundance estimate for the vaquita is in the works and should be released some time this spring.  I am sure we all hope that the numbers are not as low as we fear they might be.

This is shaping up to be the “make or break” year for the vaquita.  If rampant illegal gillnetting is not completely stopped very soon, it is likely that the species will reach a point of no return in the next 12 months or so.

Also calling for immediate action is the World Wildlife Federation:

Mexican authorities must immediately and indefinitely close all fisheries within the habitat of Mexico’s critically endangered vaquita porpoise – or we will lose the species forever.

The Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources of Mexico, referring to data from the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), said on Friday that only around 60 vaquitas remained in the upper Gulf of California — the only place the species exists — as of December 2015. This is a nearly 40 per cent decline from the 97 vaquitas that remained in 2014.

“We can still save the vaquita, but this is our last chance,” said Omar Vidal, CEO of WWF-Mexico. “The Mexican government must ban all fishing within the vaquita’s habitat now and until the species shows signs of recovery. Anything else is just wishful thinking.”

So what is the Vaquita? And what are its prospects? And why should we care?

For answers, a video featuring Barbara Taylor from University of California Television:

Net Loss: New Abundance Estimate Reveals That Mexico’s Vaquita Faces Imminent Extinction


Program notes:

Barbara Taylor of the National Marine Fisheries Service Southwest Fisheries Science Center, who participated in the last effort to save the recently extinct Chinese River Dolphin, or Baiji, gives a detailed chronicle of her involvement in documenting the decline of earth’s most endangered marine mammal, the Vaquita, found only in the Sea of Cortez, Mexico. Their primary threat is death in gillnets, which until very recently supplied shrimp to the U.S. market. The catastrophic 80% decline since 2011 results from illegal sales of endangered totoaba swim bladders to China.

One response to “The Vaquita, threatened by distant appetites

  1. Pingback: #SOSVaquita | Sown Seeds

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