San Felipe, Mexico – Somewhere deep in the blue waters of the Gulf of California, off the coast of northern Mexico, swim the last of the vaquitas.
They are a distinctive small porpoise, with permanently smiling expressions and dark rings around their eyes. And, according to the last count in November 2016, there are only around 30 left. That makes them the most endangered marine mammal species on the planet.
The vaquita’s survival has become a bit of an obsession for environmental activists, scientists and politicians around the world. Former US President Barack Obama and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto discussed ways to protect them, while celebrities Miley Cyrus and Leonardo DiCaprio have taken to social media on their behalf. And a group of marine biologists, calling themselves the International Vaquita Recovery Comission (CIRVA, to use their Spanish acronym) have hatched an audacious plan to save them using US navy-trained dolphins.
The Vaquita might not entirely welcome its newfound fame. It’s so shy and rarely seen that it has been known to science only for the past five decades.
But that time has been enough for humankind to bring it to the brink of extinction.
The vaquita is being wiped out as collateral damage – bycatch in the nets used for another endangered species, the totoaba, a fish that shares its waters.
The totoaba can grow to up to two metres in length, but poachers are interested in only one part: its swim bladder. Across Asia, and particularly in China, it is prized for its supposed medicinal properties.
Fishing and trafficking the totoaba has been illegal since 1975, but the thousands of dollars its bladder can fetch in the market means that many are willing to take the risk.
The smuggling of totoaba from Mexico to Asia has become so widespread and lucrative that it is referred to as “aquatic cocaine”. In March, the Mexican army found 17kg of totoaba swim bladder hidden in the fuel tank of a car in the northern state of Sonora.
The impact of the totoaba poachers on the vaquita’s habitat has forced a worried Mexican government to act.
In April 2015, Nieto travelled to the Gulf of California to expand a blanket no-fishing zone across the vaquita and totoaba’s principal habitat – a reserve that covers an area of 11,595 square kilometres.
It isn’t only totoaba nets that have been banned. The ban also applies to the nets of legal shrimp fishermen, which scientists believe pose a danger to totoaba and vaquitas. The Mexican navy and the federal police have been brought in to enforce the ban.
But the deaths have continued. Two more vaquita washed up in March. Fishermen in San Felipe, the town nearest to the reserve, say that despite the presence of the authorities, poachers are still going out on to the water.
“It’s the illegal fishermen who benefit from the ban. They keep going and the legal fishermen can’t work,” says Jose Luis Romero Gonzalez, a grizzled but energetic 58-year-old shrimp fisherman, as he shows us his boat, parked indefinitely in his front yard.
During the past two years, the government has provided the shrimp fishermen with compensation not to fish. But with the deal due to end in May, that money is now in danger.
The leader of the biggest fishermen’s union in San Felipe, Sunshine Rodriguez, says that if the deal is not renewed, they will have only one option: “I’ll go to court and I’ll go fishing, and nobody’s going to stop me. If this doesn’t get resolved we’re going back into the water.”
Rodriguez, a stocky blonde man with weather-beaten skin and near-perfect English, says that wouldn’t actually be a problem. Both vaquitas and totoabas can easily punch through the finer, lighter mesh of shrimp nets, he insists.
But the scientists from CIRVA emphatically disagree. They say the shrimp nets can entangle vaquitas just as badly as the illegal totoaba ones – and with the same lethal results.
The issue has divided fishermen in San Felipe. Most side with Sunshine Rodriguez and simply want to be allowed to fish as they always have. But a smaller group, including Jose Luis Romero Gonzalez, are working with the scientists, calling for the development of alternative equipment that will let the vaquita through while still trapping shrimps.
Seemingly stuck in the middle are the Mexican fishing authorities, CONAPESCA and INAPESCA. They have made attempts to develop alternative equipment but fishermen and CIRVA say that their efforts have been slow and unsuccessful. They did not reply to Al Jazeera’s repeated requests for an interview.
It has all created an atmosphere of confusion and tension between fishermen, the authorities and scientists around the vaquita reserve. That tension rose further in March when dozens of fishermen attacked environmental inspectors, destroying their vehicles and boats in the town of Santa Clara, which is also near the no-fishing-zone.
In the midst of an already fraught situation, conservation groups have also joined the fray. In particular Sea Shepherd, the marine wildlife conservation organisation famous for its battles against the Japanese whaling fleet. It has sent one of its nine ships, the Sam Simon, to try to help save the vaquitas.
The Sam Simon resembles a pirate boat, with a flag reminiscent of the Jolly Roger, but the international volunteers aboard spend their days on the lookout for poachers in the vaquita reserve, alerting the Mexican navy to any suspicious boats.
Meanwhile, Sea Shepherd also trawls for illegal nets which are snared on the hooks the ship drags behind it.
On the day Al Jazeera visited, the group found a totoaba tangled in one of the nets. The fish was about a metre long – half the size an adult can eventually grow to.
The ship’s captain, 33-year-old Frenchman Thomas Le Coz, believes this is the moment to draw a line in the sand.
“The vaquita is a symbol. There are many species that disappear all the time, and the vaquita could be next,” Le Coz told Al Jazeera. “The situation is really critical. If we can save it, maybe we can save others.”
From late December to early March, the Sam Simon and its sister ship, the Farley Mowat, had found more than 100 illegal nets. They’ve called their operation Milago (or miracle) – a reflection of the almost hopeless odds against the vaquita.
With the number so low and poachers constantly in the waters, scientists believe something significant is required.
With that in mind, CIRVA has come up with a rescue plan.
It rests on US navy-trained dolphins using their natural sonar to track some of the remaining vaquitas so that three boats full of specialists can catch them with a net.
Lorenzo Rojas Bracho, the CIRVA chairman and Mexico’s foremost vaquita expert, estimates that the operation would cost around $3.8m. He aims to raise that money from the Mexican government, private institutions and via crowdfunding in time to set sail in October.
The hope is that once in their protected sea pens, the vaquitas will breed. Even if they don’t, Rojas Bracho and the team plan to take vaquita tissue samples for a Jurassic Park-style future vaquita resurrection.
“We can do tissue culture and save some cells and you can do a lot with those things in the future, even cloning,” Rojas Bracho explained.
Veterinarians and captivity experts would monitor the capture operation and if, at any stage, the animals seem to be faring badly, it would be postponed or called off.
Barbara Taylor, a marine mammal expert at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told Al Jazeera that it may be worth trying as there are few other options.
“It’s worth a Hail Mary to try and save the species because otherwise things are looking extremely grim,” she said.
She points to the success in saving other animals by bringing them into captivity, like the California condor. There were 22 birds when they were placed in a controlled breeding programme. There are now more than 400 worldwide.
Coincidentally, there is now a population of the same California condors flying in the Sierra San Pedro Martir mountain range, just inland from the vaquita reserve. It’s a welcome reminder for conservationists that there can be hope even in the most desperate cases.