Can We Save the Vaquita?

The world’s most endangered marine mammal is on the brink of extinction. Can we save the vaquita?

The vaquita (“little cow” in Spanish) is a tiny porpoise that lives only in the Gulf of California. In March of 2018, a wildlife trade watchdog group reported that only about a dozen vaquitas were left in the Gulf, which means they will soon be extinct unless drastic action is taken.

The reason for the vaquita’s decline is the use of gillnets to harvest of the totoaba, a critically endangered fish that is also endemic to the Gulf of California. Since the totoaba and the vaquita are similar in size, vaquitas also get caught in the gillnets as bycatch. Fishing for totoaba is illegal, but the swim bladders of the fish are highly sought after for use in Chinese medicine. When one totoaba bladder can sell for thousands of dollars, it’s virtually impossible to stop illegal fishing.

Vaquita caught in gill net

Vaquitas are caught in gillnets aimed at catching other species. Photo by Christian Faesi, NOAA.

Scientists don’t know much about the elusive vaquitas, so it has been difficult to find and monitor them, let alone come up with a strategy to protect them. In 2017, the Mexican government approved a plan to capture the remaining vaquitas in order to keep them out of harm’s way, but the plan was called off after a vaquita died shortly after being captured.

Currently, the Mexican government, along with environmental organizations like Sea Shepherd, are focused on ramping up enforcement of fishing regulations and removing as many gillnets as possible. But even with these increased conservation efforts, we might lose the vaquita to extinction as soon as this year.

Why did we wait until the vaquita was nearly extinct to try to save it? Could the resources be better spent on other conservation projects, with more certain results? What does it mean if the vaquita goes extinct?

The fishing restrictions aimed at protecting the vaquita also protect other animals in the Gulf of California, including the endangered totoaba and other target fish and shrimp species. If the vaquitas go extinct, presumably the restrictions will be lifted, allowing even more intensive fishing of the region.

The vaquita may not have much value to us itself, but it supports the ecosystem in which it lives, and ecosystems need to be diverse to be resilient. Saving the vaquita means protecting the ecosystem of the Gulf of California.

Regardless of the “value” of vaquitas to humans or to their ecosystem, surely they deserve to continue living in their own right. Right?

When a species goes extinct, we irretrievably lose a unique form of life. To me, saving species from extinction is a moral imperative.

Do you agree? How do you feel about the perilous fate of the vaquita?


Related: In A New Age of Extinction, We Need to Change How We Decide to Save Species


Featured image by Tom Jefferson, NOAA.

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