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The Fight to Save the Vaquita

Vaquita4_Olson_NOAA
The Vaquita is the smallest porpoise in the world, found only in the Gulf of California. Recent estimates show that only ~60 remain in the world.

The vaquita, Spanish for little cow, is the world’s smallest porpoise and one of its most endangered sea mammals. Found only in the Gulf of California, the species is being driven to extinction by illegal gillnet fishing — caught in nets dropped for toatoba, an endangered fish whose swim bladders are thought to hold medicinal value in Asia. Referred to as the “cocaine of the sea,” the bladders sell for thousands of dollars.

Mexico instituted a temporary ban on gillnet fishing in 2015 and agreed to compensate fisherman in the vaquita region for lost catch. But fisherman want their gillnets back and poachers are undeterred in their quest for toatoba, leaving dead vaquita in their wake, and vaquita populations continue to decline.

NOAA scientist Dr. Barbara Taylor has dedicated much of her career to saving the vaquita from extinction. She was recently profiled by 60-Minutes for a story on the few remaining vaquitas and the challenges of conserving a species that few even know exist. In the following Q&A, Barbara discusses the challenge of saving vaquitas and convincing people to care about the rarely seen and little understood porpoise.


The International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) announced in May that approximately 60 vaquitas remain in the Gulf of California, a decline of more than 92% since 1997. What needs to change now to prevent the extinction of this species?
That team re-iterated that the possession of gillnets on land and at sea must be permanent.  Unsustainable kills of vaquitas in gillnets were suspected when the first vaquitas were found dead in dumps and on beaches fifty years ago. The first estimates of bycatch and vaquita abundance showed kills were indeed unsustainable over twenty years ago. Saving vaquitas means permanent elimination of gillnets.

Even with the emergency ban of gillnets and increased enforcement, unsustainable numbers of vaquitas were killed in 2015 by illegal fishing. The legal framework needs to make penalties serious enough to stop illegal behavior.

Barbara with Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto at a ceremony to launch a 2-year emergency gill net ban in April 2015 in San Felipe (a fishing village adjacent to vaquitas). Looking on is former Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources of Mexico Juan José Guerra Abud.
Barbara with Mexico President Enrique Peña Nieto at a ceremony to launch a 2-year emergency gill net ban in April 2015 in San Felipe (a fishing village adjacent to vaquitas). Looking on is former Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources of Mexico Juan José Guerra Abud.

Conservationists have succeeded in working with the government of Mexico to implement a ban on gillnet fishing in vaquita zones. What’s different about the challenge presented by poachers who catch vaquita in their nets as they traffic in totoaba bladders that are for sale for thousands of dollars in Asia?
The reward of thousands of dollars for each illegally killed totoaba far outweighs any perceived risk for getting caught.  Although there were many arrests and small fines, illegal trade in wildlife is not a felony in Mexico.  In contrast, even though blue shrimp in Mexico are lucrative, the compensation to fishermen seemed sufficient for them to not risk fishing illegally.

Vaquitas are shy and rarely seen. Barbara Taylor scans the Gulf of California through the “big eyes,” which can spot a vaquita from up to two miles away. Photo by Todd Pusser.
Vaquitas are shy and rarely seen. Barbara Taylor scans the Gulf of California through the “big eyes,” which can spot a vaquita from up to two miles away. Photo by Todd Pusser.

How do you get people to care about a species that is literally on the doorstep of extinction and that is rarely seen and in many ways little understood?
This has been challenging and remains that way. We need to raise the profile of the problem of gillnet fishing. Every day people eat seafood caught in gillnets with no knowledge of the problem. There are almost as many marine mammals killed every year in gillnets as were caught in commercial whaling.

In reality, vaquitas are the first in a series of extinction dominoes that will fall for marine species that have the unfortunate combination of a coastal distribution in productive waters where gillnets are used and low potential population growth. Vaquitas are particularly challenging because they are shy and live in murky waters that make portraying vaquitas difficult.

Nevertheless, people should care if they want their children and grandchildren to enjoy marine species like porpoises, dolphins and sea turtles in coastal waters.  Fishermen should care because these species are shedding light on unsustainable practices that will result in an overall less productive marine habitat in the very short term. Losing our top predators is a red flag to harm from which these ecosystems may never recover.

A vaquita calf, painted by Barbara Taylor.
A vaquita calf, painted by Barbara Taylor.

What’s been the most difficult challenge in raising awareness about vaquita conservation and getting people to care about its continued existence?
In a word…invisibility. Vaquitas are the world’s smallest marine porpoise or dolphin. They are naturally rare, live in a remote area in murky waters AND are shy of boats.  It’s been difficult to even get local people to stop saying that they are mythical.

What’s the greatest lesson that you’ve learned about conservation in your quest to save the vaquita?
Sadly, conservation science alone is woefully insufficient to save vaquitas. I think conservation scientists have really been on top of this problem… for decades. There is no lack of evidence of the magnitude of the problem and there is only one threat…gillnets. However, consistent governmental will and effective fisheries management and enforcement will ultimately be the key to success – or failure – for the vaquita.

Dr. Barbara Taylor is an SCB member and winner of the 2016 Edward T. LaRoe III Memorial Award, and has dedicated much of her career to saving the species.