THE VAQUITA: ON THE VERGE OF EXTINCTION
I NEVER DREAMED I WOULD SEE A VAQUITA, let alone film the animal in the wild. After spending almost eight weeks searching for this elusive animal on three different boats, for hours at a time in a desert sea, the stage was set. It was perfect weather to see one of Nature’s most reclusive marine mammals.
That day was October 19, 2008 and that day changed my life: Little did I know I would be one of a handful of people on the planet to bear witness to a species on the verge of extinction.
Only discovered in the 1950s, the vaquita is the smallest cetacean on Earth and are only found in a small area, the upper Gulf of California, Mexico.
The vaquita population has been declining steadily due to accidental bycatch in gillnets.
They cannot see these near-invisible nets, set primarily for shrimp and other fish such as totoaba. They swim into the net, become entangled and drown.
In 2008, I was invited to join an international research expedition as a visiting scientist led by the Instituto Nacional de Ecologia, Mexico (INECC) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Southwest Fisheries Science Center, USA.
Three research vessels were used to search for vaquita and deploy new instruments with special underwater microphones that would listen for them year-round. They could then estimate the vaquita population and monitor them acoustically for years to come.
My job was to do the impossible – film vaquitas. Vaquitas are incredibly shy around boats and, when they hear the noise of an engine, they disappear.
I spent two months documenting efforts of scientists on Expedition Vaquita (2008), and travelled around local coastal communities with researchers interviewing fishermen and their families.
I learned how fishing was the core lifeline for many people, and the foundation of the economy. However, there was a complex web of illegality and the rules were not necessarily followed by all.
Soon after the expedition, researchers estimated the population to be 250 animals.
An economic plan was designed and implemented by the Mexican government with input from scientists, fishermen, NGOs and local community members that included buying back fishing licences to stop fishing and paying fisherman to move into “alternative livelihoods”. These ranged from creating shops to owning hotels or starting other tourism-related businesses. By providing alternative employment for fishermen, the aim was to reduce pressure on the vaquita by removing the number of nets from the water.
At that time, many were hopeful that there would be enough time and buy-in from communities for this to work. However, time has not been kind to the vaquita.
Over the next few years, I travelled to Mexico twice, visiting and interviewing fishermen.
The fisheries buyout and alternative livelihood programmes were failing. For example, in the sleepy town of El Golfo of Santa Clara with a population of 3,000, the economy could not support rapidly expanding businesses.
On paper the buyout was designed to help; in practice, it was fragmented and lacked basic business training. Soon, both legal and illegal fishing started to increase.
They cannot see these nearinvisible nets. They swim into them, become entangled and drown.
Developing alternative fishing gear was conservation’s “silver bullet”. On one trip,
I visited staff at WWF-Mexico who were leading this development. Hope emerged that truly viable, “vaquita-safe” fishing gear could be developed in time and to scale.
But, fast forward to 2017 and the news is worse. After implementing an emergency two-year ban on all gillnet fishing in the Upper Gulf, and spending tens of millions of dollars in compensation to fishermen, researchers now estimate there are fewer than 30 animals left.
To make things worse, the vaquita are victims of increased illegal gillnets set for an endangered fish called the totoaba – a demand driven by an illegal international wildlife trade. The fish’s bladder is dried and smuggled to China, where wealthy people pay thousands of dollars believing it to have medicinal powers.
Now the vaquita could be in its final hour. WWF has called for an immediate crackdown on the illegal totoaba fishery and is renewing efforts to scale up the use of vaquita-safe fishing gear. NGOs such as Sea Shepherd tirelessly work to patrol areas with their volunteer crews to enforce the law. And, the Mexican government and researchers are now implementing a last-ditch effort to catch the remaining vaquita in the wild, keep them in captivity and breed the few remaining animals.
Thinking back to that perfect day at sea on October 18, 2008, absolute awe describes my feelings watching two vaquita playfully dancing in the sea – a moment frozen in time.
I never could have imagined time running out for one of Nature’s secretive wonders.
Scientists Paula Olson (right) and Tom Jefferson (left) searching for vaquita
A vaquita killed by a gillnet
Gillnets are the primary cause of vaquita mortality in the upper Gulf of California, Mexico Bottom: Vaquita in the upper
Gulf of California, Mexico, 19 October 2008. Because vaquita are so small and fast, they are rarely sighted, and only ever in perfect sea conditions