The Vaquita Porpoise is one of the smallest and most critically endangered marine mammals. Sadly, scientists predict this lovely sea creature will be extinct by June of this year.
The rare mammal is found exclusively in the Gulf of California, and experts estimate there are about 22 of them left as of now.
These five-foot-long cetaceans, which fall into the family of dolphins, whales, and porpoises, have snub stouts and dark eye patches.
Their black lips, which appear to be constantly smiling, is one of their defining traits. In fact, that’s how they earned the nickname “marine Mona Lisa.”
Relying on a diet of squid and fish, the Vaquita Porpoise is under threat due to the near extinction of the rare totoaba fish. An important part of their diet, the totoaba fish is overfished due to the value of their swim bladder in China where it is viewed as a delicacy.
Journalist Ben Goldfarb wrote an article about it for the Pacific Standard, in which he explained:
“They share their habitat with a fish called the totoaba, a mammoth cousin of the sea bass whose swim bladders are a delicacy worth up to $100,000 per kilogram in mainland China and Hong Kong. Although totoaba fishing has been banned since 1975—they, too, are critically endangered—poaching is rampant. Vaquitas, roughly the same size as totoabas, are prone to getting entangled and drowning in illegal nets.”
Every year in May, the Sea of Cortez is swarming with fisherman who are looking to cash in on the dwindling totoaba population.
That’s the reason experts fear the vaquita population will go extinct in June, as another “totoaba rush” could completely wipe out the remaining population.
With just 22 left, it wouldn’t take much to lose the remaining vaquita porpoises.
“Until now, the government’s position has been to do nothing until the problem subsides,” explained Jorge Urban, a researcher at Baja California Sur University (UABVS) and the head of the Marine Mammal Research Project.
“It’s very likely that by June, the species will be extinct … and the problem is no longer an issue. The trafficking of the totoaba fish will continue,” he added.
At least now, the Mexican government is trying to save the vaquita porpoise by stopping poachers from killing the remaining totoaba fish and removing nets from the ocean, amongst other tactics.
They work onboard Sea Shepherd Vessels and without their work removing nets, there wouldn’t be hope at all for the vaquita.
Mexican marines and federal police have used non-lethal weaponry to stop fisherman. Fisherman become very angry at these tactics and often fight back for themselves, as well as to free their fellow seamen who have been arrested.
After all, these fishermen are mostly poor laborers from the coast of Baja who care more about feeding their hungry families than they do about saving marine mammals.
These fishermen argue that they are the small fish getting fried. The big fish? The Chinese-Mexican illegal dealers and profiteers who provide high-interest loans to poor fisherman so they can acquire nets that cost as much as $3,000 each.
They are paid low dollar sums for the totoaba fish, and then the dealers turn around and sell them for an exuberant amount on the Chinese market.
“I know people who are dedicated 100 percent to that (totoaba) business, and don’t even have $10 to put gas in the tank of their panga … The Chinese are making the profit, that I can tell you,” Sunshine Rodriguez, a fisherman leader, told NBC.
Other experts agree that efforts to stop the illegal trade will cease to be effective until the right parties are prosecuted and middleman and traders are the wrong target.
Luckily, some changes are taking place.
Recently, 16 Chinese nationals were arrested by the Chinese government for their role in illegally trading totoaba. This was in large part thanks to efforts by the conservationist group Elephant Action League.
China continues to maintain their zero-tolerance stance on illegal trade that endangers wildlife.
Unfortunately, expanding spending power within the country has brought about the rise in demand for exotic fish and endangered animals. As a result, numerous populations – from land to sea, and from West Africa to the Galapagos Islands – have become endangered.
“As long as you hammer, put all your efforts only on the fishermen, only on removing the nets, you will fail. You don’t address the problem, and the problem is a very sophisticated supply chain,” explained Andrea Costa, an investigator from the conservationist group Elephant Action League.
“As long as you don’t hit these people and you do that … you’ll bleed out, not only the vaquita but the whole marine life in the Sea of Cortez.”