Can the Vaquita, the World’s Smallest Marine Mammal, Be Saved From Extinction?
The critically endangered vaquita porpoise — a beautiful dolphin about four to five feet long with dark circles around its eyes and an upturned, seemingly smiling mouth — is the smallest marine mammal in the world. They’re also on the brink of extinction with an estimated fewer than ten vaquitas left in their small range in the Gulf of California.
The vaquita population has dropped 99 percent over the last decade due to being caught in the gillnets set to catch the totoaba fish, which is also endangered, and other marine species. The totoaba is hunted for its swim bladder, which sells for thousands of dollars on the black market in China to be used in traditional medicine.
Totoaba fishing and the use of gillnets in the area where the vaquitas live have been made illegal by Mexico, but few penalties have been enforced, The Guardian reported.
The U.S. Trade Representative’s Office filed an environmental complaint this month against Mexico for failing to protect the vaquita, reported The Associated Press. Attempts to enforce a fishing-free zone surrounding the area where the vaquitas live have mostly been abandoned by Mexico. It is the first such case the office has filed under the free trade U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA). The first step is to have “environmental consultations” with Mexico. If those are not successful, trade sanctions could be imposed.
“This is a big move that could save these little porpoises from extinction,” said international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity Sarah Uhleman. “Illegal fishing is out of control in Mexican waters, and the vaquita is paying the highest possible price. We’re glad the U.S. government is taking Mexico to task for violating its environmental obligations and threatening the vaquita’s existence.”
After the announcement of the complaint, Mexico’s Economy Department said that it reaffirmed its commitment to the USMCA, The Associated Press reported.
“The legal and illegal trade in shrimp and fish from Mexico has been ravaging the vaquita porpoise for decades,” said the director of NRDC’s international wildlife conservation program Zak Smith, the Center for Biological Diversity reported. “It’s been made possible by the framework of poorly designed and enforced trade agreements. Today’s action by the U.S. trade representative signals the possibility of a new approach to tackling environmental destruction caused by international trade. It’s about time and the US should take strong actions against Mexico for pushing the vaquita to extinction.”
Environmentalist group Sea Shepherd was relied upon by Mexico for years to remove illegal gillnets in the vaquita’s range, but Sea Shepherd’s boats were subject to being violently attacked by poachers. In the past six years, Sea Shepherd estimated that it had removed about 1,000 gillnets.
After an attack in January of 2021, in which a Sea Shepherd boat was rammed by fishermen, members of the environmental group were forced to leave the area. It was reported that one of the fishermen died of injuries sustained during the attack. Since then, location and removal of the nets has been mostly the job of Mexico’s navy.
“We don’t need foreigners telling us what to do or placing [sanctions] on our country’s fishermen,” said President Andrés Manuel López Obrador last June, The Associated Press reported. “[W]e can reach an agreement that seeks an equilibrium between fishing and productive activities, and taking care of species.”
According to the Center for Biological Diversity, 117 boats were observed in a single day in November of 2021.
The lack of enforcement by Mexican authorities has allowed illegal fishing in the area to grow. The market for totoaba is backed by cartels and as the market for totoaba has expanded, vaquita numbers have fallen by about 50 percent per year, as The Guardian reported.
“When we were out there the last three times it was gillnets everywhere,” said marine conservation biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Barbara Taylor of survey trips taken earlier this year and in 2018 and 2019, as reported by The Guardian.
The issue, said senior fellow in the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology in the Brookings’ Foreign Policy program Vanda Felbab-Brown, is how to make environmental conservation economically viable for communities reliant on fishing for their livelihoods.
“The issue of how to fund conservation — paying communities not to poach — is something that we are really going to be confronting at a greater scale,” Felbab-Brown said, as The Guardian reported.
Felbab-Brown said it is a decades-long struggle that was going on in the Gulf of California before the increase in demand for totoaba overseas.
“The government still hasn’t given us a solution or an effective way to support our families without going out to fish illegally,” president of a federation of fishing cooperatives in San Felipe, Ramón Franco Díaz, told The New York Times last fall.
Community support is a much more effective way to protect the species, said Commissioner at the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission Francis Gulland, as reported by The Guardian.
“The reason it really is not working is there isn’t the governance to enforce another way of fishing and to support and compensate fishers who fish in a way that would allow vaquita to survive,” Gulland said, The Guardian reported.
Marine conservation biologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Barbara Taylor said the calls of the vaquitas and the clicks they use for echolocation recorded on monitoring equipment can still be heard by researchers.
“We are looking for a needle in the haystack – but we know the needle is there,” Taylor said, reported The Guardian.
Gulland said that efforts to protect the vaquita didn’t really begin until there were only a few hundred left on Earth.
“We tend to not pay attention until we are in total crisis mode,” Gulland said, as The Guardian reported. An attempt was made to relocate vaquitas to protected areas, but after a vaquita died in the process the program was halted. “If there had been 10 thousand animals we would have time to learn what to do to improve the techniques. They could have been moved to a protected area but it was all too late.”
Gulland said there is still a small window of time to save the vaquita. According to NOAA Fisheries, the shy cetaceans are believed to give birth every other year and can live more than 21 years.
“If we can prevent them from being caught in nets,” Gulland said, “they will survive,” as The Guardian reported.