Chris Johnson, Oceans Science Manager for WWF-Australia, is one of very few people to have seen vaquitas in the wild. Nicknamed ‘the panda of the sea’, the vaquita is the smallest and most endangered marine mammal, with fewer than 30 left. This Endangered Species Day, we’re putting the spotlight on this little porpoise, and calling for action to save its home.
I never dreamed I would see a vaquita, let alone film the animal in the wild. After spending almost 8 weeks searching for this elusive animal on three different boats, for hours at a time in a desert sea, the stage was set. It was perfect weather to see one of nature’s most reclusive marine mammals.
That day was October 19, 2008, and that day changed my life. Little did I know that I would be one of a handful of people on the planet to bear witness to a species on the verge of extinction.
Only discovered in the 1950s, the vaquita is the smallest cetacean on Earth and is only found in a small area in the upper Gulf of California, Mexico. The vaquita population has been declining steadily due to accidental bycatch in gillnets. They cannot see these near-invisible nets that are set for shrimp and other fish such as totoaba. They swim into the nets, become entangled, and drown.
Expedition Vaquita (2008)
In 2008, I was invited to join an international research expedition as a visiting scientist led by the Instituto Nacional de Ecologia, Mexico (INECC) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Southwest Fisheries Science Center, USA. Three research vessels were used to search for vaquitas and deploy new instruments with special underwater microphones that would listen for them year-round. They could then estimate the vaquita population and monitor them for years to come.
My job was to do the impossible – film vaquitas. These little cetaceans are incredibly shy around boats, and when they hear the noise of an engine they disappear.
I spent two months documenting the efforts of scientists on Expedition Vaquita (2008) and travelled throughout local coastal communities with researchers interviewing fishermen and their families. I learned about how fishing was the core lifeline for many people and the foundation of the economy. However, there was a complex web of illegality and the rules were not necessarily followed by all.
Hope for a solution
Soon after the expedition, researchers estimated the population to be 250 animals. An economic plan was designed and implemented by the Mexican government with input from scientists, fishermen, NGOs and local community members that included buying back fishing licenses to stop fishing and paying fisherman to move into ‘alternative livelihoods’. These ranged from creating shops, owning hotels or starting other tourism related businesses. By providing alternative employment for fishermen, the aim was to reduce pressure on vaquitas by removing the number of nets from the water.
At that time, many were hopeful that there would be enough time and buy-in from communities for this to work. However, time has not been kind to vaquitas.
Over the next few years I travelled to Mexico twice, visiting and interviewing fishermen. The fisheries buyout and alternative livelihood programmes were failing. In the sleepy town of El Golfo of Santa Clara with a population of 3,000, the economy could not support rapidly expanding businesses. On paper the buyout was designed to help; in practice it was fragmented and lacked basic business training. Soon, both legal and illegal fishing started to increase.
Developing alternative fishing gear was conservation’s ‘silver bullet’. On one trip, I visited staff at WWF-Mexico who were leading development. Hope emerged that truly viable vaquita-safe gear could be developed in time.
Vaquita – a conservation emergency
Fast-forward to 2017 and the news is worse. Despite an emergency two-year ban on all gillnet fishing in the upper gulf and tens of millions of dollars spent in compensation to fishermen, researchers now estimate that there are fewer than 30 vaquitas left.
Vaquitas have become victims of increased illegal gillnets set for an endangered fish called the totoaba – a demand driven by the illegal international wildlife trade. The fish’s bladder is dried and smuggled to China, where wealthy diners pay thousands of dollars for the delicacy, believing it to have medicinal powers.
Now the vaquita could be in its final hour. We’re calling for an immediate crack-down on illegal totoaba fishing and are renewing efforts to scale up the use of vaquita-safe fishing gear.
Thinking back to that perfect day at sea on October 18, 2008, absolute awe describes my feelings watching two vaquita playfully dance at sea. In that moment frozen in time, I never could have imagined time running out for one of nature’s secretive wonders.
This is our last chance. Help us protect this exquisite species from extinction.
Chris Johnson is a marine scientist at WWF-Australia leading their Antarctic conservation work and has expertise in film-making and science communication.