The Gulf of California plays host to the world’s most elusive porpoise: the vaquita (Phocoena sinus). On the other hand, that won’t be the case for long unless conservationists discern a better way to protect them from the imminent threats they endure on a seemingly daily basis.
Image Credit: Paula Olson/NOAA
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) recognizes the vaquita as a critically-endangered species, but the situation is much direr than it sounds. Some experts in marine biology mention that there could be just over a dozen vaquita in existence today, and with such a small footprint, one wrong move could send the species spiraling toward oblivion.
The humble vaquita is a victim of circumstance; no one is purposely going out to reduce their population numbers, but the animals do tend to get involved in fisheries’ fishing nets and, consequently, drown. Those fisheries are purportedly after an entirely different prize, a fish called totoaba, which is considered a delicacy in other parts of the world.
The apparent motive here is money, and while local governments have outlawed the use of fishing nets to catch totoaba and listed the fish as a protected species to prevent it from being captured, rebellious fisheries continue their business as usual.
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Conservationists frequently team up with law enforcement and military to remove those law-breaking nets from the water, but as you might come to expect, the fishermen don’t take too kindly to having their livelihoods breached. In many cases, they’ll fight back against the efforts to remove the nets, pummeling conservation teams with rocks or other deterrents and shooting surveillance drones out of the sky.
"If we stop operations, the vaquita will go extinct," said Jack Hutton, the first mate of the ship that carries the righteous vaquita-saving squads. "It's just out here removing nets, if we stop removing them then there's no hope for the vaquita."
"We know we are going to keep getting attacked; we know we are risking our lives, but if we don't the vaquita has no chance," he added.
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Citing a recent report by the Associated Press, sonar scans have revealed that there are at least 22 confirmed vaquita in existence today. The number isn’t that impressive, but it’s a bit more optimistic than the 15-18 figure that was estimated last year. The circumstances denote the possibility that the vaquita is responding positively to the continued conservation efforts.
Some have suggested that the Mexican government should go beyond banning and removing fishing nets and instead meet resisting forces with force. Alternatively, governments around the world could do more to prevent the sale of totoaba, hopefully in an effort to reduce fishing demands in the vaquita’s natural habitat.
It remains to be seen how conservationists will officially resolve the totoaba fishing problem in the Gulf of California, but the fate of the vaquita seems to hang in the balance. With a little luck, perhaps they’ll succeed in boosting vaquita numbers such that the species can be relocated.