Photo by Tom Jefferson. Courtesy of vivavaquita.org.
The vaquita marina (or marine little cow) is one of the seven species of porpoise currently recognized and listed as Critically Endangered (CR) in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species website. It is also the most endangered of all cetaceans with less than 30 individuals left in the whole wide world. The vaquita is endemic to the northern Gulf of California, Mexico and has been the victim of by-catch when fishermen illegally fishing for the totoaba, an endangered species of fish, set out their nets in the middle of the night. The totoaba and the vaquita are approximately the same size, so vaquitas also get entangled in the fishing nets and drown because they cannot make it to the surface to breathe. Vaquitas are really shy and so they are hard to detect, which makes locating them and studying them challenging. Besides being shy, they also travel in small groups, unlike many other cetaceans that can travel in groups of up to thousands. Sometimes people mistake the vaquita with bottlenose dolphins because they can be easily confused if you can only get a quick glimpse at their dorsal fins. Vaquitas are usually better seen when weather conditions allow for a smooth, glass-looking sea surface, because they are not acrobatic like bottlenose dolphins are.
There have been many attempts by the Mexican government and other organizations to halt vaquita deaths or at the very least decrease their rapid population decline. Unfortunately, their population numbers continue to decrease due to the by-catch problem. Things are more complicated than just blaming fishermen for this issue, though: a long history of corruption has negatively impacted the fishing community in the area and thus has forced many fishermen to turn to illegal totoaba fishing to make a living and support their families. Totoaba swim bladders, the reason why they are targeted by illegal fishing activities, can fetch a really high price in the black market because some Chinese people believe them to have high medicinal value, and so are willing to pay a lot of money for them. Therefore the scope of the vaquita and totoaba issue is bigger than just Mexico. Most people in China are unaware that the swim bladder of the totoaba they are purchasing is resulting in the rapid decline to almost extinction of the vaquita porpoise. In China this is not the only species to have the same issue, and so in the scale of wildlife trafficking, totoaba swim bladder is probably not at the top and thus not a main issue for the Chinese government to address. That does not mean they aren’t doing something; it is just that efforts might not be sufficient to prevent the extinction of the vaquita.
This is why I stress the importance of general public education and outreach: the consumer has power and can dictate the future of a market if properly informed. If you are from China or know someone from China who might be helpful in disseminating this information, please let them know! Every single one of us can make a difference by passing on the message and encouraging others to boycott the purchase of a product that is decimating a population of marine mammals (and fish) somewhere else in the world. Without a demand for swim bladders, there will not be a need for illegal totoaba fishing anymore, and therefore no more vaquita deaths due to by-catch. Today is the International Save the Vaquita Day. Help me in honoring this day and the vaquitas by sharing this information. I thank you in advance for your part in making a difference!
To learn more about the vaquita situation and what else you can do to help, please check out the resources below:
-Y. A. Scalia 🙂