Is it too late to save Mexico’s vaquita porpoise?

TechKnow explores scientists’ last-ditch conservation effort to save the world’s smallest porpoise from extinction.

Without intervention, conservation biologist Barbara Taylor gives the most endangered marine mammal, the vaquita, “a year or two at best. This is the hail mary for vaquitas.”

The vaquita, which is Spanish for “small cow”, is the world’s smallest porpoise – one that could soon be lost forever. The miniature porpoise, with dark smudges around its eyes and mouth, is dying at a catastrophic rate.

It’s estimated that fewer than 30 vaquitas are left in the warm, fertile waters of the Gulf of California off the coast of Mexico – the only place they live in the world. Two decades ago, more than 600 vaquitas lived there.

Also called the “panda of the sea”, the vaquita is a naturally elusive porpoise that has never been captured, tagged or studied up close by marine biologists.

An international team of scientists is determined to try and save the species, but it’s a race against time.

According to scientists, many vaquitas are being killed in gillnets – not set for them, but for a fish named totoaba, another endangered species found in the Gulf of California.

It's important for Mexico to save the vaquita from extinction and it's the equivalent to the same effort that China has been doing to save Panda bears.

by Alfonso Blancafort, Vaquita CPR

According to the environmental investigation agency, the demand for totoaba can be traced to China, where it is sold illegally. Some Chinese believe the dried swim bladder of the totoaba improves skin and liver conditions, invigorates circulation, and stops bleeding. None of this is medically proven, but the illegal trade in totoaba is extremely lucrative.

“It’s horrific to see how much sea creatures are trapped in those nets. It’s heartbreaking,” says Oona Layolle, captain of the Sea Shepard, a marine conservation group that voluntarily patrols the upper Gulf of California for totoaba nets. “All these protected marine mammals are dying for no reason. They’re just dying in these totoaba nets. It’s horrible.”

In a last-ditch attempt, scientists are planning to use US Navy-trained dolphins to find some of the vaquitas and capture them, hoping they’ll breed in sea pens and kept under guard 24 hours a day, seven days a week. There are also plans for land-based tank systems and support apparatus to keep the captured porpoises alive in case of emergency. 

“We’re going to have 40 people from all over the world. All with different levels of expertise,” explains Barbara Taylor from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. “We have specialists in capturing porpoises from Denmark and the Netherlands. We have veterinarians who have worked with porpoises from Hong Kong to the Netherlands, we have people who have specialised in tagging and capturing. So we have that team. Then we have the team of people who I work with that are experts in finding them. We’ll be using both acoustics and visual and we’re even going to be bringing in the Navy dolphins to help us track this really elusive species.”

The Mexican government has also taken a keen interest in protecting the vaquita. It “has invested so far over a billion peso in compensating fisherman,” according to Alfonso Blancafort, who co-chairs the vaquita rescue programme in Mexico and created the plan to use economic incentives to keep gillnets out of the Gulf of California. 

For the past two years, Mexico has paid fishermen not to fish until alternative gear that would not kill vaquita could be developed. 

“As you can imagine, going to the communities and trying to convince families not to go back and fish, which is what they have been doing for generations, [is difficult]”, says Blancafort. “The purpose of this programme is to have them go back and fish but being able to do so without killing vaquita. It’s important for Mexico to save the vaquita from extinction and it’s the equivalent to the same effort that China has been doing to save Panda bears.”

Editor’s Note: Since the making of this film, the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration had taken in two vaquitas. The first showed signs of stress and was released. The second died a few hours after captivity. The $5m rescue project was, consequently, cancelled.

Oceanographers insist that unless the Mexican government cracks down on illegal fishing there is no hope that the vaquita will avoid imminent extinction.