In 2016, scientists made a distressing announcement: There were fewer than 30 vaquitas ― a tiny porpoise that dwells in Mexico’s Gulf of California ― left in the wild. With carcasses continuing to wash up, researchers worry the vaquita could be extinct by 2018, becoming yet another mammal forced off the face of the Earth.
Losing the porpoise would be a tragedy for Mexico, the World Wildlife Fund said this week ― akin to “losing a piece” of the country, according to Maria Jose Villanueva, a project coordinator for WWF Mexico.
But the demise of the vaquita would be a blow to more than just its home country. Extinction claims many species every year, many of which are never even known to science ― and even those that are known often aren’t cute enough or deemed important enough to even be eulogized. Yet the vaquita, nicknamed the “panda of the sea” for its dark-circled eyes and smiling face, would not be a creature that would die in obscurity.
It’s a species whose rescue effort involved millions of dollars of investment, the input of several nations and appeals from big-name celebrities like actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who this week made a personal plea to Mexico’s president to hasten conservation measures in the gulf. If we can’t save a beloved, charismatic mammal, what can we save?
Yet the struggle to save the vaquita is a lesson on how complicated it can be to bring an endangered species back from the brink ― a fight that involves the illicit trade of a product so profitable it’s been called “aquatic cocaine,” criminal gangs across at least two continents, and a battle between environmentalists, government officials and angry fishing communities. Now, officials want to launch a risky “last-ditch” effort to capture the remaining vaquitas and breed them in captivity, an idea that has divided the conservation community and revealed yet again the intricate complexities of saving a species.
Lorenzo Brachos-Rojas will never forget the first time he saw a vaquita in the wild as a young doctoral student in the 1990s. “When I went into the water and I saw it, I felt like crying,” he said, speaking over Skype from his home in Mexico.
At the time, very little was known about the world’s smallest cetacean, a subset of aquatic mammals that includes dolphins and whales. Found only in the northern part of the Gulf of California, the vaquita ― a rare, shy and generally solitary animal ― hadn’t even been on scientists’ radar until 1958. When Brachos-Rojas started searching for it, many feared it might already be extinct.
“Many people, including government authorities and the fishing sector, denied the existence of it,” he said.
That first sighting sparked a career in vaquita conservation. Brachos-Rojas is now arguably the world’s leading expert on the threatened porpoise. He is also the chairman of the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, or CIRVA, a conservation group the Mexican government founded in 1997. The media even dubbed him “Mr. Vaquita.”
In the late 1990s, Brachos-Rojas and a team of researchers conducted a survey of vaquitas in the gulf, and estimated a total population to be about 567 individuals. At the time, a group of U.S. scientists warned that the vaquita population was at a “critically low level,” and was declining at a rate of about 18 percent each year.
“The situation is completely out of control,” Rojas-Bracho told Science magazine in February.
The vaquitas’ rapid march toward extinction can be traced to soup made with swim bladders.
The swim bladder, also known as maw, is a gas-filled organ fish use to stay buoyant underwater. Considered a delicacy in some Asian cultures, maw is typically sold dried and served in soups or stews. Many believe ― though it isn’t corroborated by science ― that eating maw boosts blood circulation and improves skin texture, among other benefits.
Not all maw is considered equal, however. Walk into a dried seafood store in Shanghai or Singapore, Hong Kong or New York, and there will be a wide price range for the shriveled organs lining the shop’s shelves. It could be $10 for 100 grams of small and thin bladders, or up to hundreds of dollars for “fish maw king,” the larger and thicker bladders taken from fish like pollock and sturgeon.
Then there’s the bladder of the totoaba, one of the largest drum fish on Earth and the primary cause of the vaquita’s precipitous decline.
Like the vaquita, totoabas are endemic to the northern Gulf of California. The fish can grow to over 6 feet in length ― which is even bigger than a vaquita, which grows to about 4.5 feet ― and weigh more than 200 pounds. They’re considered a critically endangered species, though their exact numbers are unknown.
Totoaba bladder is among the most expensive on the market. In stores where it’s sold (mostly in China and Hong Kong), these premium bladders can cost up to $10,000 per kilogram. That’s as pricey as some cocaine.
It’s not entirely clear how people in Asia came to develop a taste for the swim bladder of a fish found only in a narrow strip of water halfway around the world. But conservationists’ best guess is that seafood traders saw a golden opportunity after noticing the physical similarities between totoaba maw and that of another fish: the Chinese bahaba, a giant drum fish whose huge swim bladder was so coveted in its native China that demand for it drove the fish to near-extinction.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature declared the bahaba critically endangered in 2006, its decline due largely to overfishing. Though China had banned the commercial fishing of the bahaba in 1989, illegal fishing continued. In the early 2000s, a kilo of bahaba bladder could fetch up to $64,000 on the black market.
As bahaba numbers plummeted, seafood sellers began searching for an alternative, said Greenpeace campaigner Bonnie Tang, speaking to HuffPost from Hong Kong. That’s when totoabas started disappearing en masse from the Gulf of California.
“They discovered that totoaba fish maw looks like Chinese bahaba fish maw after being processed,” said Tang. The similarities between the two types of maw were so uncanny that traders and retailers had no trouble at all passing off the totoaba as bahaba. In fact, both maw, said Tang, are sold under the same name in China and Hong Kong: Jinqian min, or “money fish maw.”
Though the Mexican government had outlawed fishing for the rare native totoaba in the 1970s, the enormous potential payoff ― as much as $1,000 for a single bladder ― enticed local fishermen.
It also seduced criminals, both locally and across the ocean. Mexican drug cartels and illegal wildlife traffickers in Asia are believed to drive the mysterious, and illicit, global trade of totoaba maw, said Brachos-Rojas.
The vaquita is merely a bystander in this drama; they have a tendency to get caught in the large, near-invisible gillnets used to catch totoaba. Unable to surface for air, the mammals drown.
Addressing a complicated, illegal network that has nothing to do with the vaquita itself makes the situation very complicated, said Brachos-Rojas. “There’s no easy answer.”
Trouble in the gulf
The Mexican government has already spent more than $26 million ― and has plans to spend millions more ― in efforts to stem the decline of the vaquita, a species with significant ecological importance in the Northern Gulf. Vaquita are near the top of the food web and feed on small and medium-sized fish, as well as squid and crustaceans, and scientists say their extinction could have a cascading effect on other species in the ecosystem. The vaquita is a food source for several shark species, including the great white shark, and possibly killer whales, and its loss could have a negative impact on these apex predators too.
In the 1990s, Mexico’s Environment Ministry established a protected refuge area for the vaquita, which was expanded in 2005. The government has also issued several iterations of a gillnet ban in the gulf in the last two decades. An emergency two-year ban across the vaquitas’ entire range, which expires on May 31, is their most recent attempt.
Some of the federal funds have also provided economic alternatives to local fishing communities, who are resentful of the restrictions on their livelihood. But these efforts have not yielded much success: Fishermen are furious, and the vaquita continues to hurtle toward extinction.
Tensions came to a head in March when rioters in the town of Golfo de Santa Maria burned patrol boats and attacked local environment officials. A few weeks later, across the gulf in San Felipe, hundreds of people took to the streets to protest the American conservation group Sea Shepherd, whose vessels have been patrolling the gulf since 2015 to help the Mexican Navy enforce the gillnet ban. Protesters scrawled the words “Sea Shepherd” on an empty boat and dragged it to the town’s beachside promenade, where they set it on fire and cheered and jeered as orange flames swallowed the effigy.
“We’re not going to permit them to keep doing to us whatever they fucking want,” yelled Sunshine Rodriguez, the leader of a San Felipe fishing collective, according to footage captured at the protest and shared on Twitter.
Conservationists worry that the fishermen’s mounting rage is creating pressure on local officials to turn a blind eye to illegal fishing. As Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson quipped: “Vaquita don’t vote, but fishermen do.”
Speaking from his California home in February, Watson described the uphill battle facing vaquita conservationists. There are physical dangers, he said. The Sea Shepherd crew in the gulf, most of whom are volunteers, “get an awful lot of threats, including from people who identify themselves as ‘the cartel,’” he said. “Our volunteers have taken on a lot of personal risk.”
Meanwhile, totoabas and vaquitas keep dying. Sea Shepherd volunteers continue to find dead totoabas entangled in fishing nets, their swim bladders gouged out of their bodies. “It’s easier to hide the swim bladders, so they just cut them out and leave the rest of the fish,” said Watson.
At least five vaquitas were found dead in March and April, including a newborn with its umbilical cord still attached. “It is devastating,” Oona Layolle, a Sea Shepherd captain, told NBC San Diego. “This is really what we don’t want to see. It’s just so sad.”
The vaquitas’ plight has attracted attention well beyond Mexico. During a meeting last July, former U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto committed to stepping up bilateral cooperation to protect the species. A few months later, the International Whaling Commission, an intergovernmental body with 89 members, called for cooperation between nations to save the vaquita from extinction. Echoing the advice of other conservation groups, the IWC pushed Mexico to make the gillnet ban permanent in the gulf. It also said other member nations should commit financial resources and technical expertise to support Mexico’s efforts, and crack down on the totoaba trade at home.
Though the IWC has no power to enforce these recommendations, the move was hailed as a big deal for the small porpoise ― a sign that the global community is paying attention.
But international intervention hasn’t always worked out well for the vaquita. Last year, several U.S. conservation groups, including the Center for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council, called for the boycott of Mexican shrimp to put pressure on Mexico to make the gillnet ban permanent. The boycott only served to ignite more anger in gulf communities, and were part of what fueled the protests in San Felipe and Golfo de Santa Maria earlier this year.
In a terrible twist of fate, some of the efforts to protect the rare porpoise ― and the anger those efforts have unleashed ― may ultimately lead to its demise. If the vaquita goes extinct, the thinking in some quarters goes, the bans and boycotts will finally end. “Fishermen keep saying they’re extinct because it’s in their interest for them to be extinct,” said Watson.
Joe Burnett knows just how difficult it is to change the fortunes of an animal already on the verge of extinction. Burnett, a senior wildlife biologist with the U.S.-based Ventana Wildlife Society, helped spearhead efforts to capture and reintroduce the California condor to the wild after the creatures were shot, electrocuted and poisoned into near-extinction around the late 1980s. By the time scientists intervened with a plan to capture the remaining wild condors and breed them in captivity, there were just 27 left ― almost exactly the same population as the vaquita today.
“There was a camp that was like, ‘Let them die with dignity, they were going extinct anyway,’” Burnett said. “There were other people saying, ‘No, they were wiped out unjustly, we have to save them.’”
Two decades later, a similar desperate plan is under consideration for the vaquita. CIRVA is preparing to launch a risky effort to capture as many vaquitas as possible and relocate them to a protected sea pen, where they could mate and reproduce. If it works, CIRVA says, those vaquitas could eventually be returned to the wild.
CIRVA’s capture plan borders on the bizarre. The group wants to enlist a “dream team” of scientists, veterinary specialists and U.S. Navy-trained dolphins, which have been taught to find underwater mines and enemy divers, to seek out vaquitas in the gulf.
There are two main problems with this plan, however. For one, no one has ever captured a vaquita alive. And as groups like Sea Shepherd and the World Wildlife Fun point out, the animals could die in the process, only furthering their plight.
“Capturing the vaquita is not the solution,” said Watson. “First, it might put a lot of stress on the animals, and second, we shouldn’t be taking the vaquita out of its habitat. The habitat and the species are as one.”
But Brachos-Rojas says that while this “plan B” is less than ideal, it’s the only rational option conservationists have left.
“If vaquita are not protected, they will die,” he said. “You can say, ‘We might stress the vaquita, we might kill the vaquita,’ but that’s a ‘might.’ If we don’t do anything, they will be killed. This is a dire situation. We didn’t want to go this way.”
Zak Smith, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s marine mammal project, supports CIRVA’s capture plan, though he acknowledges the potential challenges in recovering the species. “Vaquita in the wild have a 50/50 chance of dying in the next year,” he said. “Knowing that’s the fate of vaquita in the wild, they are willing and feel it’s necessary to try this kind of drastic action to keep them alive.”
But other conservationists say that even if ― and it’s a big “if” ― CIRVA’s capture plan works, it will take 50 years for the vaquita to recover to a level scientists deem stable ― and that’s assuming fishermen stop using gillnets, and totoaba demand declines.
Such debates are all too familiar to Burnett. The decision to take drastic action to save the California condor was not taken lightly, he said. Scientists had to research the population to make sure there was enough genetic diversity for the last condors to breed, a biological imperative to create a healthy population.
They were lucky, Burnett said: They were able to find and capture the condors, the birds they found had good genetics, and they had the resources they needed to make the plan work. There are now almost 300 condors flying free in California, Arizona, Utah and Mexico; another 50 are released every year, plus 12 to 15 chicks born in the wild.
When vaquita conservationists express hope in the future, they often cite the condor success story ― even conservationists critical of CIRVA’s capture plan.
“We’ve seen the recovery of the California condor from very low numbers,” said Waston. “I do think the vaquita is recoverable, too. We have to try anyway.”
If the vaquita goes extinct, it will be the first cetacean snuffed out since China’s last Yangtze River dolphin died in 2006. “We always thought that what happened in China would not happen here,” Frances Gulland, commissioner of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission, told the New York Times last month.
She noted that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center, which has been supporting CIRVA’s efforts in the gulf, is located just over the border in La Jolla, California: “We have all these experts and scientists — we have everything.”
Brachos-Rojas, who has spent decades fighting to save the species, says he has no choice but to remain hopeful. After all, when he started his work on the vaquita, most people didn’t even believe it existed. “Now we have a recovery program to try to save it,” he said. “We’ve done a good job in that way.”
CIRVA’s ambitious capture effort is slated to kick off in October, though they are still raising funds and making final preparations. They got a boost earlier this month, when two live vaquitas were spotted near San Felipe.
“I’m always optimistic that things will work out,” said Brachos-Rojas. “This isn’t the first nor the last species to be in trouble.”
Dominique Mosbergen is a reporter at HuffPost covering climate change, extreme weather and extinction. Send tips or feedback to dominique.mosbergen@Twitter.or follow her on
Nick Visser is a reporter covering climate change, the environment and endangered species for HuffPost. He tweets here.