Endangered Efforts: Time to Bid Farewell to Vaquita?

Scientists say less than one-dozen of the marine mammal remains in Baja California’s Sea of Cortez. Is it too late to save the species?

STATEWIDE—And then there were only 10. No need to apply within for job openings of doomsday spokesperson, as the vaquita porpoise might be fully extinct before the end of this decade – which, by the way, is less than eight months away.

The Log, in our coverage of the marine mammal in 2017 and 2018, reported there were 30 or fewer vaquitas remaining in the world. Alarm bells are ringing louder as an international committee of scientists recently reported the vaquita population dropped from 30ish … to about 10. Animal Welfare Institute actually reported a range of remaining vaquita, stating, in a March 14 statement, there are between six and 22 of the marine mammal species still alive. Efforts to raise awareness of – and save – the vaquita, which calls the upper shores of Baja California’s Sea of Cortez home, are, accordingly, failing.

Now it is still possible for the vaquita to make a miraculous comeback, joining the ranks of the southern sea otter, humpback whale and green sea turtle as species triumphantly rebounding from endangerment or extinction.

The vaquita’s culprit: drift gillnets placed along the floor of the Sea of Cortez by commercial fisheries. Those fisheries have actually been targeting valuable totoaba, which sell for quite a bit of coin in the Chinese black market. Vaquitas, unfortunately, consistently get caught in these gillnets, rarely surviving (if ever). Attempts to monitor commercial fishery activity in the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California) and implementations of seafood bans from those who use gillnets in waters off the Baja coast were geared toward stifling illegal fishing activities in Northwest Mexico. Local governments in the vaquita habitat region even offered commercial fishermen incentives to not engage in illegal fishing activities. Enforcement measures were implemented to eradicate as many gillnets as possible in the Sea of Cortez – though such efforts do not appear to be working fast enough.

So what more can be done to save the handful of vaquita still remaining – and use the current population to rebuild the marine mammal’s population to something sustainable? We have, after all, seen other species recover from endangered species status. In fact six species in California alone were taking of the endangered species list in 2013, including the southern sea otter, humpback whale and green sea turtle mentioned above.

Seafood bans, incentives for commercial fishers and environmental groups monitoring for illegal fishing activity have yet to reverse the trend of disappearing vaquitas. There was also an effort to capture a few remaining vaquita and rebuild the species in captivity – yet that plan ended almost as quickly as it started when one of the marine mammals had died while held captive.

Several aquariums, meanwhile, launched a postcard campaign to implore the Mexican president to be more proactive in protecting vaquita from gillnets and illegal fishing activities. The postcards were delivered to the Mexican president a few months ago, but it’s unclear whether the campaign translated into action.

What if the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, stepped in and required the governments of Mexico and the United States to step up and do more to rid the Sea of Cortez of gillnets? UNESCO, for those who don’t recall, postponed a decision to declare the vaquita species as “in-danger.” The international organization has not appeared to do anything since deciding to postpone the in-danger classification in July 2018. UNESCO officials held off on declaring the marine mammal as in-danger of being extinct because they wanted to see whether policies already in place would save the vaquita from disappearing.

Several vaquitas have since died, according to the most recent estimates – perhaps the policies currently in place weren’t/aren’t quite as effective as UNESCO officials had hoped. Perhaps UNESCO needs to revisit its deliberation on the vaquita’s near extinction.

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10 thoughts on “Endangered Efforts: Time to Bid Farewell to Vaquita?

  • April 11, 2019 at 4:42 pm
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    If there are less than a dozen vaquita currently in the wild, and none in captivity to breed, they will be extinct by the end of the decade, which, by the way is on 12/31/2020, not 12/31/2019. Decades are always supposed to start with year 1, not year 0.

    Why are there none in captivity breeding now? Anyone know??

    Reply
    • April 11, 2019 at 10:34 pm
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      Doug,
      For a detailed account see the book by Brooke Bessesen. But the short version is that porpoises don’t fare well in captivity. Only a handful of harbor porpoises have been kept in captivity and they have not bred successfully.
      When 2 vaquita were captured the adult female became highly distressed and was released. She swam rapidly away from the boat (rapid frantic swimming is a sign of distress in the delphinidae), then turned and swam back toward the boat and died in the arms of the veterinarians. The young vaquita was immediately released (fate unknown).

      The best hope for the vaquita is first removal of the nets and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is literally risking their lives in confrontations with the fishermen to remove the nets (this is NOT a traditional fishery and the fishermen moved there to pursue the totoaba). Contributions to SSCS can be directed to campaign Milagro which is the campaign working in the gulf of California.
      Second, a NO GO marine reserve would SAVE the vaquita and ENHANCE the fisheries.

      Finally, many of the totoaba bladders are shipped to China via San Francisco. Maybe Gavin Newsome can do something to help break the trade. There is a whistleblower program that congress has already FUNDED that provides rewards through the USFWS and other agencies. Maybe he could push them to implement the program?
      Hope this helps. I’m posting a lot about this issue in the only forum I’m on consistently (democraticunderground) look for posts there and I’ll answer more questions if you have them.

      Reply
    • April 11, 2019 at 11:11 pm
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      Because the vaquita, like all porpoises, is very vulnerable to stress. Attempts to catch the remaining vaquitas to breed them in sea pens resulted in two deaths of the two animals caught – hence it’s next to impossible to live capture them.

      Reply
    • April 12, 2019 at 5:14 am
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      From what I’ve read, they are very reclusive, nervous creatures. The first one the marine biologists captured died from the stress.

      Reply
    • April 14, 2019 at 11:32 am
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      Did you even read the article, Doug. And who cares when the decade ends there’s bigger matters at hand obviously

      Reply
      • April 16, 2019 at 5:37 pm
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        Enough dialogue and looking for International solutions. It Vaqita are in Mexican waters. They are being killed by illegal netting by Mexican fishermen. It’s the Mexican governments responsibility to stop the illegal netting. Not “Manana”…. but “Ahorra”
        Pretty simple! Otherwise Adios Vaquita!
        Personally, I try capture and put them in some facility where they had a chance. At this point, it’s like an operation to save a life… It may work, or it may not. There are no guarantees in life. Just give it your best shot!

        Reply
  • April 11, 2019 at 5:14 pm
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    No photos, old or new, to accompany story. I so not even know what one looks like.

    Reply
    • April 12, 2019 at 7:58 pm
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      So elusive very few photos exist, only a few seconds of video and no underwater footage which is why the BBC and Animal Planet walked away from proposed documentaries. There are a few pictures and video here:
      http://www.vivavaquita.org/
      Most internet searches bring up a lot of other animals that are NOT vaquita.

      Reply
  • April 12, 2019 at 7:59 pm
    Permalink

    So elusive very few photos exist, only a few seconds of video and no underwater footage which is why the BBC and Animal Planet walked away from proposed documentaries. There are a few pictures and video here:
    www(dot)vivavaquita(dot)org/
    Most internet searches bring up a lot of other animals that are NOT vaquita.

    Reply

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Standing Watch/Take Action

In this section you will find resources and supplemental information on what you can do to Take Action. Submit additional information or tips on this issue to editor@thelog.com

The estimates, if true, are disheartening – as few as six vaquitas remain in the world. If nothing is done then the number might as well be zero – those six vaquita won’t survive much longer. Yet if at least two remain then the right amount of action might be able to save the marine mammal from extinction.

Reach out to the following organizations or agencies and ask them if there is anything they can do to prevent the vaquita from going extinct.

 

UNESCO

Mechtild Rössler
UNESCO’s World Heritage Centre
M.Rossler@unesco.org

 

Isabelle Anatole-Gabriel
Chief, World Heritage Centre’s Europe and North American unit
i.anatole-gabriel@unesco.org

 

Center for Bioligical Diversity

Alejandro Olivera
aolivera@biologicaldiversity.org

 

Sarah Uhlemann
suhlemann@biologicaldiversity.org

 

Animal Welfare Institute

Marjorie Fishman
margie@awionline.org

 

Marine Mammal Commission

Dr. Daryl J. Boness, Chair
mmc@mmc.gov
301-504-0087