UPDATE! The gillnet ban has been made permanent!
A creature swims in the upper Gulf of California, Mexico that occurs nowhere else on the planet. Less than five feet long, with subtle hues of gray and white, this animal is almost never seen, and was only discovered in the 1950’s. Most people have never heard of it, yet it is the world’s most endangered marine mammal, with fewer than 60 individuals remaining. What is this mystery creature?
The vaquita (vuh-KEE-tuh), Phocoena sinus, is a tiny porpoise (porpoises are similar to dolphins, but smaller and without a prominent beak) that only lives in a 1,400 square mile area in the northernmost tip of the Gulf of California. The gulf is also known as the Sea of Cortez, and is a strip of sea between mainland Mexico and the Baja California peninsula; an aqua oasis juxtaposed between lifeless deserts. The locals in this region rely on one career over any other: fishing. The Sea of Cortez abounds with fish and shrimp, and the area’s residents capitalize on this resource. There is a problem, however. The cheapest and easiest way to catch fish and shrimp is with drift gillnets, nearly invisible fishing nets that are extremely efficient at catching everything that swims their way. Everything, including the vaquita. The vaquita has been declining for as long as the species has been known to science, and the primary reason for this decline is accidental entanglement in gillnets, known as bycatch. The vaquita is not the target catch for the fishermen, it is simply collateral damage in the race to catch as much seafood as possible. Originally, most vaquita bycatch occurred when people were fishing for the totoaba, an enormous fish in the drum family. The totoaba is endangered in its own right, so this fishing was soon outlawed. However, in the past few years, the illegal demand for totoaba has skyrocketed again, causing a sharp decline in both species. In China, the swim bladder organ of the totoaba is regarded as a symbol of wealth, and is also believed to have medicinal properties. A single totoaba swim bladder can fetch thousands of U.S. dollars on the black market, which is too good to resist for the Mexican fishermen.
So, what is the solution to this problem? Get the gillnets out of the vaquita’s range. The upper Sea of Cortez is a remarkably rich, healthy, and diverse marine ecosystem, with no other serious threats to the vaquita. If this one danger can be removed, the recovery of the vaquita is virtually guaranteed. On the other hand, if the gillnets persist for even a few more years, the vaquita will be gone forever. Due to remarkable efforts by conservationists and worried citizens alike, the Mexican government has announced a two-year ban on gillnets in the vaquita’s entire range beginning in April 2015. This gives scientists time to figure out how many vaquitas are left, as well as to perfect and distribute trawl nets that do not kill the timid vaquitas. The nets are vaquita-safe because the loud noise of the mechanism scares the shy porpoises away, and if one does get caught, there is a hatch on top that will allow the vaquita to escape. It has been determined that it will take a ban of at least 20-30 years for the vaquita’s numbers to reach sustainable levels, so while this ban is a good first step, it will not be enough to save the vaquita if the gillnets are back in the water in two years. In addition, the ban will be useless if it is not efficiently enforced by boats and drones. Illegal fishing is rampant in Mexico, and will not go away just because of the ban. Pressure must be kept on Mexico’s officials to ensure they follow through with their admirable promises, and that they extend the ban so that the vaquita has enough time to make a full recovery. The survival of the vaquita would be one of the most amazing conservation success stories in history, and it would demonstrate that all hope is not lost for our endangered wildlife. (Article I wrote for online magazine Bare Essentials.)
So how can you help? Some of the best ways for anyone to help are spreading the word on social media and in person, only eating sustainable seafood (no gillnet-caught seafood from the Gulf of California, and especially no Totoaba swim bladders), signing petitions to the Mexican and U.S. governments, and donating to vaquita conservation organizations. Below are links to everything you need in order to make a difference for the vaquita.
SIGN THE NEW PETITION: https://www.change.org/p/make-the-gillnet-ban-permanent-to-save-the-vaquita
International Save the Vaquita Day 2015: http://www.vivavaquita.org/international-save-the-vaquita-day.html
If you would like to buy the second edition of the first-ever vaquita book, written by me and with profits going to VIVA Vaquita, please visit https://www.createspace.com/5285494.
And please follow V-log to stay up-to-date with all the latest announcements regarding the vaquita and its conservation. Thanks!