Never have you seen a marine mammal like this, with such elegant markings around the eyes and mouth. Almost as if she is wearing lipstick and mascara.
She is small and shy. Infact, she is the smallest porpoise species.
Only found in the Gulf of California, the vaquita is so rarely seen, it is believed by some in Mexico to be a mythical creature.
The vaquita is also the rarest marine mammal in the world, and is rapidly going extinct.
Vaquita, means “little cow” in Spanish. A fitting name for the miniature porpoise that lurks innocently in the shallow shores of Mexico.
But with less than 100 left in the world, the vaquita is predicted to be completely extinct by 2018. And humans are entirely responsible.
Unlike most porpoises, the vaquita is a shy ominous creature. Rarely seen by humans unless they are pulled to the surface, dead, caught in fishing gear.
The only threat to the existence of this innocent creature are gillnets; a type of fishing gear used to catch shrimp and other fish in the Gulf of California.
This small porpoise is often caught and drowned in these large nets as bycatch; the consequential catches during commercial fishing for a different species.
The amounting deaths of the vaquita and their nearing extinction spoke to my heart and motivated me to find out more about this creature, and how I could help bring them back from the edge of extinction.
I became captivated by the species’ story, and wanted to learn more about the world’s smallest porpoise.
Gillnets are the only threat to the existence of the vaquita. This fishing gear is an imperative part of fishermen’s’ livelihoods in Mexico.
A large wall of small netted holes, gillnets are the single most effective and lucrative way to catch fish.
When caught in the net, fish wiggle and squirm in attempt to get out, only getting more and more entangled in the wall of netting. Unfortunately, the same process is true for the vaquita.
The two biggest factors driving the use of gillnets in Mexico come from the shrimp market in the U.S. and the black market in China.
In April 2015, the Mexican President, Enrique Peña Nieto, announced a 2-year ban on gillnets within the range of vaquita.
But fishermen continue to fish illegally with gillnets regardless, striving to provide for their families the best way they can.
United States Demand – “Sustainable” Shrimp
Wild shrimp from the upper Gulf is desirable in U.S. restaurants and markets, and thus has the highest price point for fishermen supplying this catch.
Fishermen, as any other professional, are striving to make the biggest profit they can for a successful work day and financially sweet reward.
Living in San Diego, I frequently enjoy dining out at local seafood restaurants or purchasing shrimp at the grocery store. And when given the option, I would choose wild shrimp over farmed because it is fresher, cleaner, and is less likely to be contaminated by harmful chemicals.
Wild shrimp is perceived as sustainable, and a better option for health and environment conscious consumers. This issue is more complex than that.
The sad truth is that many types of wild caught shrimp come with a side of vaquita casualties.
Chinese Demand – Ivory of The Sea
The vaquita has had a catastrophic decline of 18.5% per year.
This decline is due to unregulated illegal fishing. In addition to the shrimp industry, this decline is being driven by the demand for totoaba in China.
The totoaba is a large endangered fish that lives in the same area of the Gulf as the vaquita.
Totoaba are highly desirable in China for their fish bladders. “Fish maw” is the term for dried fish bladders of the totoaba and is highly prized as a delicacy in traditional Chinese food and medicine. It is believed that fish maw has reproductive benefits and boosts fertility.
Only a small group of the elite in China actually buy it because it is priced so drastically high, only a small percentage of people can actually afford it.
Fish maw is also believed to have anti-aging properties that makes it very desirable. A single fish bladder can fetch a fisherman $10,000, making the use of gillnets extremely desirable.
Awareness and education are the first steps towards conservation. We cannot protect wildlife if we do not know a problem exists. We cannot save them if we are uninformed of the situation and threats.
There definitely is some major efforts that need to be instituted on a global level. But a simple and vital action I, personally, can take on is to share the story of the vaquita and bring it to life.
So can you. Help save the vaquita by sharing its’ plight.