What is a vaquita ?
The vaquita is a bathtub-sized porpoise with silvery-gray skin and panda-like eyes that is found exclusively in the Upper Gulf of California in Mexico, It wasn’t discovered until 1958 by University of California scientist Kenneth Norris and a little over half a century later, we are on the brink of losing them forever.It is estimated that there are now fewer than 10 vaquitas left, with a total population decline of 98.6% since 2011 despite the Mexican government spending more than $100 million to aid its recovery.
The Gulf also happens to be the habitat of the highly sought after totoaba fish.The totoaba is a critically endangered fish whose swim bladders are sold primarily in China for their medicinal purposes, despite there being no scientific evidence to back up its purported virtues. These bladders have been dubbed the “cocaine of the sea” and can fetch up to $46,000 USD per kilo on the black market.
Why are vaquitas endangered?
Vaquitas need to go up above sea to get oxygen in order to live. Due to the gillnets, many vaquitas died of suffocation. Each year, typically between late November and May, huge gill nets — some stretching more than 600 meters (2,000 feet) are dropped into the waters to catch totoaba but vaquita are often caught and drowned in these gill nets used by illegal fishing operations ,While Mexico attempted to save both the vaquita and totoaba by enacting a 2 year ban on gill nets in April 2015, the totoaba fishing has only increased as the profits skyrocket. Fishermen were outraged at the gill net ban and the small payments by the government did nothing to replace their profits from fishing. Without being able to sustain their livelihoods, the illegal totoaba fishing has never ended.
How conservationists are tackling the problem
Other organizations like WWF are retrieving lost or abandoned illegal "ghost" gill nets, which continue to entangle and kill vaquitas and other marine species and providing technology to make it easier and more effective to remove these nets from the water. From October 2016 to July 2017 alone, this initiative retrieved more than 400 nets from vaquita habitat.
WWF are also using acoustic monitoring, to help estimate the vaquita population to provide crucial information for the design and implementation of effective conservation measures.
Traffickers are playing a huge role
The fishermen deploying the gill nets that aren’t the biggest threat to the vaquitas , it’s the people organizing the illegal trade of totoabas behind the scenes. They’re the ones placing the gill nets into the fishermen’s hands,large gill nets of that size are very expensive at $3,000 to $4,000 apiece, money your average fisherman doesn’t have lying around. Traffickers give them these nets and the little bit of totoaba that they get is used to repay the nets.
Is There Hope For The Vaquita
The vaquita will be extinct if fishery bycatch is not eliminated immediately but a new study that investigated the genetics of the vaquita showed there is still hope .Usually, small populations can be at risk of being “doomed to extinction”, due to loss of genetic diversity and inbreeding. However, the study suggests that the Vaquita has survived in small population numbers for at least 250,000 years, having reached “genetic equilibrium”, with less diversity than any other known mammal, yet a perfectly healthy genepool.
How can you help the Vaquita
I scoured the internet for various organizations that were helping the vaquita directly and I found the Porpoise Conservation Society. They had a list of simple things that could help the vaquita which included adopting a symbolic vaquita .