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Farewell, Little Porpoise

By Luke Ormand, Nature and Wildlife Photographer

It is unusual to publish an obituary when the subject is not yet dead, but the situation for the vaquita, that little porpoise with a short and stocky build and panda-like markings, now appears hopeless. For decades, scientists have trekked down to Baja California, where the Sea of Cortez laps the sandy desert peninsula on the west and wets the Mexican mainland shores on the east in search of the vaquita. 

While scientists recently announced that approximately ten of these “little cows” remain swimming in the upper reaches of Mexico’s Gulf of California (also known as the Sea of Cortez), their existence is futile. Pushed against the threat of extinction for the past twenty-five years as a result of intense fishing for the (now critically endangered) totoaba fish which is sought after for its Chinese prized swim bladder, the world’s smallest cetacean will likely soon surface for a final breath – a truth we all bear the guilt of. 

Photo: Paula Olson/NOAA

Undescribed by science until the late 1950’s, vaquitas have experienced a rapid decline, almost exclusively as the result of bycatch mortality. The vaquitas habitat is sandwiched between the mainland of Mexico and the desert wilds of Baja California where fishing is often the only reliable income.  In 1996, these porpoises were listed as critically endangered, with an estimated population of approximately 600. Eighteen years later the number had dropped below 100.  Today, the reports are shocking with the most optimistic population estimate being just 22 individuals. Ghost nets and newly deployed fishing gear threaten to extinguish the remaining vaquitas every minute of every day – something that has been known by government officials for as long the decline has been occuring. Alarm bells have been going off for so long, they have been become background noise.

So how did we get here? How have we failed the vaquita every step of the way?  In just six decades, science went from adding the smallest marine mammal to our ever-growing catalogue of life to crossing the inscription out with a thick sharpie. As is the case with many creatures of the sea, overfishing has been the largest threat to the vaquita – though the porpoise was never the intended target. Chinese demand for an exotic animal product has driven fishermen to ignore laws, sustainable harvest practices and reality – does this formula sound familiar? Not unlike the Chinese craving for Shark Fin Soup, profit and status are put before all else at the expense of innocent life.

Photo: Christian Faesi/©Omar Vidal

The Mexican government was slow to act with regulations, another case of too little too late.  China didn’t bother to crack down on the smuggling of totoaba swim bladders until recently and the United States can be best characterized as a nagging neighbor, watching as the vaquitas numbers continued to sink while doing little to help. Even with current President of Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, making preservation of the vaquita a priority, the efforts appear to be hopeless. In a desperate effort to start a captive breeding program, one vaquita was tragically killed within hours of capture and the program was quickly scuttled.

Just this past March, a near deadly confrontation between Mexican marines and illegal gillnetters took place. The altercation resulted in one fisherman being accidentally shot by Mexican officials, the President issuing a statement of regret and increased tension between fishermen and conservationists. With the daily drama unfolding above the sea’s surface, beneath the waves the diminutive vaquita attempts to navigate around defiatently deployed fishing gear – with the crushing pressure of the lucrative totoaba harvest never letting up.

Photo: Paula Olson/NOAA

We continue to kill our marine brothers and sisters with reckless abandon.  Since the start of the year, over 1,100 dolphins have washed up on France’s shores, dead from aggressive industrial fishing efforts. A deceased Cuvier’s beaked whale in the Philippines recently garnered worldwide attention after a necropsy revealed nearly 90 pounds of plastic waste in its stomach and just this week the plastic packed carcass of a pregnant sperm whale washed ashore in Italy – another silent victim of man. Plastics; poaching; an insatiable global fishing market. Oil spills; habitat destruction; increased ship strikes, the list of casualty causes is seemingly never ending. Everywhere we look one constant remains: More death, less life. 

Thirteen years have passed since the Baiji, a white Chinese river dolphin, was declared functionally extinct. Around the time the vaquita was being described by scientists in the 1950’s, the Caribbean monk seal was wiped off the planet.  In between these events, the Japanese sea lion also became a scientific footnote.  We have not learned from these past mistakes.  Technology, resources, awareness and science have come a long way since the 1950’s.  There is no excuse for the extinction of a marine mammal in 2019. We have not responded strong enough, seriously enough or smart enough. We now have a choice – let the vaquita be another entry in the book of extinction, or let this event be the final chapter.   

The vaquita will be remembered by many, but forgotten by most. A beautiful creature, unique in size and appearance has been lost to history. The vaquita is survived by five species of porpoises and just over 80 species of cetaceans, many of which face a myriad of anthropogenic threats.  We pray for these marine mammals, but will we do more? 

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