By MELISSA T. CASTRO
It’s a species that’s rarely heard of, even more rarely seen, and soon it won’t be seen at all.
The vaquita porpoise is the world’s most rare marine mammal, and with estimated numbers plummeting to about 30, it is on the brink of extinction.
Considering the estimated numbers of vaquitas in 2008 was at 567, there has been an almost 95 percent drop in population over the last 10 years.
Classified by the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) as “critically endangered,” the vaquita makes its home in the northern part of the Gulf of California.
Discovered in 1958, vaquitas are often caught and drowned as bycatch in gillnets used by illegal fishing operations.
According to vaquita expert Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, who heads the Marine Mammal Conservation and Research at Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change, one of the main reasons for the vaquita’s decline is the ever-increasing demands of totoaba fish.
Also endemic to the Gulf of California and similarly classified as critically endangered, totoaba fish are illegally caught for their bladders, which are feted in Chinese medicine as the “cocaine of the sea.”
Chinese holistic medicine practitioners mistakenly claim that totoaba bladders can be used to treat everything from joint pain, to cancer, to infertility.
Science has yet to find any basis to these claims.
With an estimated payday of $8,500 per kilogram, smugglers willingly set out nets to catch this so-called commodity, and it is in these gillnets that the vaquitas get caught and often meet their untimely demise through asphyxiation.
Efforts to mitigate the damage already done to this species have provided a mixed bag of results.
On one side, there has been an increase in cross-border collaboration with the government members of China, Mexico and the United States signing international accords calling for a halt in all totoaba bladder trafficking.
The Mexican government also implemented a permanent ban in 2015 on the use of gillnets in the upper Gulf of California.
This ban was accompanied by a promise to retrieve all ghost nets that had been previously abandoned in these waters.
In September 2017, an initiative to capture the remaining vaquitas, so as to secure them and breed them in captivity, was launched by Mexico in collaboration with the United States.
This project was declared a failure in November 2017, after an adult female vaquita was successfully captured, but died within five hours.
“We knew from the beginning that this was one of the risks,” said Rojas-Bracho.
Demand in China for the totoaba’s bladder has skyrocketed and with less fish being caught, the financial incentive for those who succeed is monumental.
“When you have a totoaba bladder that is more expensive than cocaine, nobody will stop totoaba fishing,” concluded Rojas-Bracho.
There is no viable solution at this moment to save the vaquita porpoise, which, at this point, seems to be rapidly headed for extinction.
It might be an insignificant creature to most, but if this species goes, what’s next?
In 2017, at least seven species of animals were officially declared extinct in the wild by the WWF. What can we expect at the end of 2018?
If you’d like to learn more about the vaquita porpoise, the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) will be hosting a temporary exhibit titled “Vaquita Marina, entre redes: Una historia que no debe repetirse” (“Vaquita Porpoise, caught in the net: A story that cannot be repeated”) at the Universum museum from July 28 through Sept. 30.
The Universum is located on Circuito Universitario s/n at Ciudad Universitaria in Mexico City and is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. There is a 40-peso admission fee.