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A Porpoise at the Precipice: Should We Let the Vaquita Go?

This is an excerpt from an article by Andrew Revkin of the Columbia Climate School on his new Sustain What dispatch at Bulletin.com. Read the rest here.

vaquita swimming
A female vaquita known as “Ana” (identified by fin markings) with a calf, photographed in September 2018 by Oscar Ortiz (via the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita)

With mothers and calves among the last nine or so porpoises, recovery is still possible – with swift help to block deadly nets. I was poised to write off the vaquita. But this is a rare instance where a small, specific investment – $178,000 to deploy two vessels for three weeks in September – could help save this cetacean species on the brink.

You almost surely know the plight of the vaquita, the tiny and profoundly endangered porpoise stuck in a cul-de-sac-like niche and hemmed in by perils at the northern end of Mexico’s Gulf of California.

These marine mammals drown when entangled in diaphanous gill nets set by local fleets for a large endangered fish called the totoaba, a black-market source of a dried swim-bladder delicacy smuggled to China, and prized blue shrimp.

A blitz of illicit fishing in recent years turned a rapid 20-year decline in numbers into a shocking free fall, leaving fewer than 10 vaquitas alive today, including several mothers with calves, according to the latest expert estimates.

vaquita swimming near a boat in the water
In 2019, conservationists photographed two vaquitas near a boat setting a gill net in the “zero tolerance” no-fishing zone. CONANP/Museo de la Ballena/Sea Shepherd

The situation worsened in mid July when the administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador outraged conservationists and scientists by announcing the relaxation of Mexico’s protections for what had been a critical “zero tolerance” no-fishing zone at the heart of the species’ tiny refuge.

Given the unrelenting Chinese totoaba trade and the power of Mexican cartels, it would be easy to write off the loss of the last few vaquitas as just another tragic and infuriating data point in the long slide toward a mass “sixth extinction” – the still-unfolding human disruption of global biological diversity.

In fact, as I started drafting this dispatch last week, building on a string of New York Times posts, I was prepared to concede game over and say the conservation community should turn its attention, and limited resources, elsewhere.

But several interviews with seasoned experts in recent days shifted my view, particularly because there’s something the public can do right now to help while the wheels of international diplomacy and trade law spin. All it would take is one prosperous philanthropist or a couple thousand regular folk to cover the very modest cost of deploying two observing vessels that are already in the region to the critically-important no-fishing zone before the next gill-netting surge in September. (Details below.)

Particularly convincing was Barbara Taylor, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration senior scientist who’s been involved for years in vaquita monitoring expeditions, analysis and research using an array of acoustic listening devices to assess the population’s size and dynamics.

Four reasons for hope

You can watch our full interview on YouTube, but here is the core of Taylor’s argument for giving the last few vaquitas a fighting chance:

  • The survivors are wily and elusive, she said, with their scars and behavior showing they are aware of the risk nets pose.
  • The estimated presence of three calves – all fat and healthy in 2019 – showed that the remaining females are prolific breeders.
  • Recent analysis of the vaquita genome shows they are unlikely to face a genetic bottleneck that sometimes threatens the recovery of deeply depleted species.
  • Finally, Taylor said, there are other examples of species, including marine mammals, reviving extraordinarily well from tiny numbers after devastating slaughter. She is particularly heartened by the saga of the northern elephant seal, which was declared extinct in 1884. A tiny population was discovered on an island off Mexico’s Pacific coast. Now there are 300,000.

Many last-chance species, like the California condor, had to be taken into captivity to recover, and that failed with the vaquita.

But for other species, all it takes, Taylor said, is “stopping killing them.”

A Biden role

At the scale of international diplomacy and conservation and trade agreements, there is much the United States could do to help turn things around, according to Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution Center for Security, Strategy and Technology. But she noted in an interview that, on almost every front, Mexico has to step first – particularly because tough trade sanctions and other steps already in place under longstanding American conservation laws can’t be lifted without evidence of progress.

Watch our interview here. Felbab-Brown’s core points are laid out in two recent commentaries. One, focusing on ways Mexico could restore its valuable seafood trade with the United States, was co-written in May with Alejandro Castillo López, associate director of marine conservation and sustainable fisheries at Pronatura Noroeste. But their prime recommendation, stopping fishing in the “zero tolerance” area, is precisely the opposite of what the Mexican government unveiled in its latest update on vaquita protections.

In a new article, Felbab-Brown and Kristin Nowell, executive director of the conservation group Cetacean Action Treasury, described a possible path for the Biden administration focused on a addressing a core driver of the vaquita’s decline – rising activity by Mexico’s drug cartels around San Felipe, the town where most of the illegal fishing is centered.

They wrote:

Two months ago six fishermen were gunned down in broad daylight, unprecedented coordinated assassinations linked to the sons of drug kingpin El Chapo and the Sinaloa cartel. No one has been arrested, and bilateral security cooperation to tackle the cartels remains largely frozen due to Mexico’s December 2020 security law that eviscerated meaningful cooperation in retaliation for the U.S. arrest of former Mexican Minister of Defense Salvador Cienfuegos on drug charges. If the U.S. takes action quickly to help Mexico get things right on the vaquita, progress could also be made not just on averting a species’ extinction but also on rebuilding the anti-crime partnership important for U.S. security.”

But once again, the first steps have to be taken by Mexico, Felbab-Brown said in our interview. So far, Mexico’s president hasn’t shown much willingness to crack down on crime. And she said there are indications that some people in government in Mexico believe the extinction of the vaguita “is actually the best outcome because then they will not have to struggle with enforcement, with the political repercussions.”

She warned against such sentiment: “It can take years to prove that the vaquita has gone extinct, and during those years, U.S. economic sanctions on the seafood industry can remain in place. So even from very pure economic self-interest, this false hope that the extinction of the species will remove the problem should not be entertained.”

Read the rest here and also learn how you can make a prompt difference by helping get two patrol vessels out on the contested waters this fall.

This is an excerpt from an article by Andrew Revkin of the Columbia Climate School on his new Sustain What dispatch at Bulletin.com, a platform hosting independent writers from Malcolm Gladwell to Malala Yousafzai. Revkin’s reports there build on his Climate School Sustain What webcasts and his work here aiming to foster communication impact amid the complexity surrounding issues like the climate crisis and global conservation challenges. You can follow his output by signing up here.

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Andrew Revkin
2 years ago

There’s an exciting update to report. Kristin Nowell, the executive director of Cetacean Action Treasury, sent a note saying one vessel is now out on duty: “[T]he Whale and Ocean Science Museum ship the Narval was finally able to get out on the water in the Vaquita Protection Refuge’s Zero Tolerance Area; they will be pulling out illegal gill nets and searching for vaquitas.” She also reported a surge in donations this week, adding, “It is very encouraging to know that there is strong public support out there for the world’s most imperiled animal which very few have seen, let alone heard of!” I’ve updated the story here.

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