Vaquita not extinct: Hope remains for world's most endangered animal

Mexican cartels, Chinese smugglers, corruption and illegal fishing have seen numbers of the world's tiniest porpoise plummet to less than 10.

Conservationists fear the vaquita will be the next marine mammal to be forced into extinction by humans, and while various advocacy groups differ on how to save them, one thing they all agree on is that hope remains.

This month, specialised surveyors have returned to the vaquita’s tiny 300 square kilometre refuge in the Upper Gulf of California, Mexico.

Although results of the survey remain a closely guarded secret, sources have revealed to Yahoo News that some vaquita have been observed this month.

It's not too late to save the species.

A photographer on the left, a Vaquita on the right
Vaquita are notoriously elusive and few photographs of them exist. Source: Chris Johnson / WWF-Australia

Describing the marine mammals as “very shy”, Kristen Nowell from US nonprofit Cetacean Action Treasury told Yahoo News both visual and sonic monitoring are being used to track the elusive animals.

“They’re using very experienced observers to visually identify the vaquita," she said.

“Because they’re not like dolphins, they're not boisterous, they don't display, they don't follow your boat or jump up out of the water."

Vaquita numbers plummet to less than 10

Genetic diversity suggests vaquita were never abundant, and backwards extrapolations from recent surveys led to an estimate of between 2000 and 4000 individuals in 1900.

Twenty-five years ago there were still an estimated 500 vaquita left, but their numbers have since plummeted.

During the last major count in the Autumn of 2019 between six and twelve vaquitas were spotted, leading researchers to create an estimate of 9.7 using an average.

Fishermen hauling a Gill Net onto their small boat
Gill nets have driven the vaquita to the precipice of extinction. Source: Chris Johnson / WWF-Australia

Covid-19 delayed a planned follow up survey in 2020, however a smaller one in November logged two sightings.

With the numbers so low, Thomas Jefferson from Viva Vaquita, warns that the species could quickly disappear.

“I mean, it could happen in a month or two if something really tragic happens", he said.

“That could be a dramatic increase in fishing, or if fishing moves into a hotspot area where those remaining vaquita are spending a lot of their time.”

Hope remains that vaquita may not go extinct

A captive breeding effort in 2017 was abandoned during an attempt to remove the animals from the wild when both showed signs of stress and one died.

One glimmer of hope can be found in a recent study which suggests vaquita are breeding more often than recently thought; once a year as opposed to every two years.

There are even some conservationists who hypothesise the remaining vaquita may have learnt to survive by avoiding deadly gill nets which have been the primary driver of their demise.

Despite a ban by Mexico on using these nets in the vaquita’s habitat, they are still the most common net used by fishermen.

They are devastatingly effective at catching all sizes of fish and shrimp including endangered totoaba, which are similar in size to vaquita.

Chinese totoaba trade leading to demise of vaquita

Much of the illegal trade is centred around catching totoaba, a fish highly prized for their swim bladders, which once dried, have fetched prices of between US $25,000 and $85,000 a kilo in China.

Animal Welfare Institute wildlife biologist DJ Schubert is calling for better intelligence sharing between Mexico and China as well as the United States which is a known transit point for totoaba.

Dried totoaba swim bladders next to a pen for size reference
Dried totoaba swim bladders, like these specimens seized in the US can fetch thousands of dollars. Source: Reuters

“A holistic response is necessary to solve this problem,” he said.

“While Mexico bares a great deal of blame... it’s going to take the international community to respond to this crisis.”

Fishermen ignoring gill net bans

Enforcement in the Upper Gulf of California is the shared responsibility of the navy, fisheries and the environment police, however observers say they have never been effective in stopping illegal activity.

Ms Nowell notes that vaquita are the fastest declining animal in the world because of a "huge enforcement failure".

“Say you're a highway cop, and 95 per cent of the people are blasting on the highway and ignoring the speed limit, it becomes very difficult to make enforcement effective,” she said.

“When the speeders see that they just become more bold, and that's how we've arrived at this ridiculous situation."

'Money matters': Economic pressure could be key

Sarah Uhlemann, senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, was a key player in a 2018 lawsuit which banned imports of shrimp from vaquita habitat into the US.

Speaking with Yahoo News, Ms Uhlemann said while enforcement plans have failed, "money matters at the end of the day" and the ban could increase pressure on authorities.

“With the Mexican government we've tried it all," she said.

"For decades scientists have been raising the alarm bells… but the government just continue to step aside and let the species go extinct, so we’re using economic pressure.

“It's not the first tool in the toolbox, but I think it's an important one.”

Sea Shepherd face violence on the seas

While most conservationists back US seafood import bans as a mechanism to save the vaquita, Sea Shepherd argue it has resulted in division between conservationists working on the ground and local fishermen.

The group’s founder Captain Paul Watson told Yahoo News the boycott has made the fishermen “much more angry” and resulted in “hostility” towards their crews.

“(This) was ironic, because we're the one group that was not supporting the boycott,” he said.

A map of the Gulf of California on the left and a beached Vaquita on the right
Vaquita live in a tiny corner of the Gulf of California. Source: NOAA Fisheries / WWF-Netherlands

Increasing violence forced Sea Shepherd to retreat from the region, however their crews returned in October and are working alongside Mexican authorities surveying vaquita.

“We've had drones shot down, we've had Molotov cocktails tossed on the boat, we’ve been shot at, had a lot of rocks thrown at the wheel houses,” Captain Watson said.

“The crew has to wear bulletproof vests and Kevlar helmets when they're out on deck, and we also have a water cannon on the vessels.”

Smugglers circumvent ban to smuggle totoaba

Despite the bans, investigators have observed illegally caught seafood being freighted over US borders.

Sources say sellers have simply trucked their Upper Gulf of California catch to a new destination and acquired export documents that fake its origin to avoid the ban.

One fishing industry insider, who spoke to Yahoo News on the condition of anonymity, said organised crime began to significantly infiltrate the town of La Paz on the southern end of the Gulf in 2012, but the totoaba smuggling industry “exploded” in 2015 and is now at “commercial levels”.

Two Vaquita swimming inn the ocean
Sarah Uhlemann says Australia has a role to play in saving the vaquita. Source: Chris Johnson

They allege there is ongoing corruption between seafood producers and authorities, with fishermen doing the bidding of the cartels after receiving threats, or joining willingly due to being left poor by increased restrictions on other types of fishing.

Once fishermen hand their totoaba swim bladders to the cartels, the product has then been tracked to Chinese businessmen with legitimate interests in Mexico who have the export connections to ship it out of the country undetected.

If the world can't save vaquita there is little hope for bigger challenges

Most experts agree that saving the vaquita is not Mexico’s problem alone, it’s a world problem and China and the United States have major roles to play.

Stopping the vaquita's extinction is the world's "smallest conservation challenge", according to Ms Nowell who describes the problem of saving them as "eminently solvable".

"There's only a handful of animals, only a few hundred illegal fishermen, it's only a few miles off shore, and the solutions are there," she said.

"We have the right kind of gear available that won't harm the vaquita, so if we can't fix this little problem, it won't bode well for the larger, more complex problems that we have to solve like the upcoming climate conference next week.

"If we lose this fight, it's not good for the future."

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