Why It's So Hard To Save An Endangered Species

The struggle to protect the vaquita, the world's most endangered marine mammal, illustrates the complexities of conservation.
A critically endangered vaquita entangled in a gill net.
A critically endangered vaquita entangled in a gill net.

Green groups hailed it as “big news for a little porpoise.” With just 60 animals left in the wild and the threat of extinction looming, governments had finally banded together in an effort to save the vaquita, the most endangered marine mammal on Earth.

Urgent conservation measures to protect the creature were approved at the International Whaling Commission in Slovenia late last month. The emergency resolution that the U.S. tabled included measures to permanently ban gill net fishing from the vaquita’s range, remove existing gill nets and clamp down on the illegal trade of totoaba. The critically endangered fish can become captured by the nets that snare and strangle vaquita.

“The IWC’s approval of this range of measures to increase protection for the vaquita is a positive and vital step if we are to stand a chance of preventing the extinction of this species,” said Matt Collins of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, praising the resolution.

But the struggle to save the vaquita has revealed something sobering about endangered species conservation at large: even when bold steps are undertaken to save a threatened animal, it can be dreadfully difficult to do.

Take the vaquita. Despite recent efforts to conserve the porpoise, many experts have continued to express concern at its plight.

The so-called “panda of the sea” is still doomed, they say. The current plan to save the vaquita just “won’t work.”

Vaquitas are the world's smallest cetaceans -- dolphin, whale and porpoise family.
Vaquitas are the world's smallest cetaceans -- dolphin, whale and porpoise family.

Vaquitas live exclusively in the northern end of Mexico’s Gulf of California and have been under serious threat since the 1990s. Gill nets, used to catch shrimp and fish, have been their primary downfall; the porpoise gets ensnared in these nets and drowns.

In recent years, demand for the totoaba, also endemic to the Gulf of California and typically caught with gill nets, has intensified the decline of the vaquita. The fish’s swim bladder, also known as maw, is considered a delicacy in parts of Asia. It can sell for as much as $10,000 a kilogram, or almost $5,000 a pound.

In May, the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita announced that due to the totoaba trade and unsustainable fishing techniques, only 60 vaquitas remain in the wild — a decline of more than 92 percent since 1997.

Without a dramatic ramping up of conservation efforts, the porpoise will be extinct by 2022, the group said.

“We are watching this precious native species disappear before our eyes,” said committee chairman Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho at the time.

This March 2016 photo shows fish maws placed in a basket to dry outside a dried goods shop in Hong Kong. The maws of totoaba,
This March 2016 photo shows fish maws placed in a basket to dry outside a dried goods shop in Hong Kong. The maws of totoaba, a critically endangered fish, are sold for thousands of dollars on the black market in Asia.

Both Mexico and the United States have in recent years expressed a joint commitment to protect the creature in an attempt to stave off this dire prediction. In 2015, Mexico imposed an emergency two-year ban on gill nets, both illegal and legal, across the vaquitas’ range. This July, U.S. President Barack Obama  and Mexican President Peña Nieto discussed a tentative proposal to permanently extend this ban — a dialogue that continued at the recent IWC meeting.

At the event, IWC members, including Mexico, agreed by consensus to a resolution that would permanently ban gill nets across the vaquita’s habitat, improve policing of the restriction and introduce new trawl gear to replace the nets. The IWC, of which China is also a member, additionally agreed to provide funding and technical expertise to Mexico to enforce the ban, as well as to take steps to crack down on the totoaba trade and to compensate local fishermen affected by these measures. 

The “imminent extinction [of the vaquita] is preventable,” Justin Cooke of the International Union for Conservation of Nature told IWC delegates at the meeting. “If we don’t prevent it, it will be our collective failure.”

Some conservationists say the gill net ban will indeed be helpful in immediately reducing the by-catch risk posed to the porpoise, but these efforts won’t nearly be enough to save the species. 

In an Oct. 31 policy perspective letter in the journal Conservation Letters, a group of scientists said the current plan to save the porpoise is a merely “another ‘quick-fix’ intervention.” Those who signed the letter included Scripps Institution of Oceanography researchers Andrew Frederick Johnson and Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, the Gulf of California Marine Program’s Marcia Moreno-Báez, and Catalina López-Sagástegui, a researcher at the University of California Institute for Mexico and the United States. 

The gill net ban and related measures “neglects local livelihoods, the traditions and heritage of the community, the ecological integrity of the area and increases dependence on fishing subsidies,” the researchers said. 

Trawl gear, for one, is significantly more expensive than gill nets and will cost an additional subsidy of $8.5 million per year to maintain local revenues, the scientists estimated. The new equipment will also pose significant ecological risks as trawl gear drags along the sea floor, thus potentially threatening sea floor species and ecosystems. 

The researchers also said the current plan excludes local fishermen from the process of designing a sustainable management plan, and fails to adequately address the rampant, and very lucrative, totoaba trade.

“Although a gill net ban will surely slow the rate of by-catch vaquita in the commercial gill net fishery, it does not address illegal fishing of totoaba, nor the human dimensions that are being driven to fish illegally,” Johnson told The Huffington Post in an email Friday. “Why is illegal fishing happening? The human aspects need to be addressed for a long term solution. It is not as simple as stopping the fisheries from catching vaquita as by-catch.” 

Fishing is currently the primary means to make a living in the Upper Gulf of California, said Johnson. Investment will be needed to improve infrastructure in the region, thereby giving locals access to a wider variety of work opportunities. Education will also be required to empower local fishermen, teaching them about the consequences of unsustainable fishing practices, techniques to help add value to their catches, and alternative livelihoods such as tourism or the service industry. 

Taking immediate steps to save the vaquita is extremely “urgent,” Johnson said. But celebrating the gill net ban as a long-term, sustainable solution is both “dangerous” and misguided, he warned.

“It is a step forward, but really celebration is dangerous as it implies solutions are coming. The ban will only curb current trends,”Johnson said. “The vaquita population is so low now that it is important not to assume that these measures are the end of the story, we still need more interventions to help the vaquita recover.”

As Johnson and his colleagues note, the issues surrounding vaquita conservation perfectly illustrate the “complicated landscape” of endangered species preservation. The scramble to save threatened creatures often only begins when they are on the brink of extinction, like in the case of the endangered pangolin or the Sumatran rhino. Sometimes these efforts are “too little, too late.” In other cases, the measures put in place to preserve these species are mere stop-gap efforts that lack the nuance and thoroughness that is needed to make a lasting impact.

In September, for example, over 100 countries agreed to ban the trade of pangolins, the world’s most trafficked mammal. Despite the win, however, conservationists warned that the restriction may not be enough to save the species. High demand for pangolin parts in Asia, where they are used in traditional medicine, will likely continue to fuel a booming illegal trade of the animal, they said. 

Ultimately, when it comes to conserving species and natural resources, “we need a long-term vision,” said Octavio Aburto-Oropeza, one of the scientists behind the recent vaquita report. And we need to act well before the chime of the eleventh hour. 

“Making a change now is urgent,” said Aburto-Oropeza, referring to the vaquita. “But 20 years ago, it was also urgent.”