The Vaquita's Last Stand: The Struggle To Save The World's Rarest Marine Mammal

Published: Monday, November 19, 2018 - 12:37pm
Updated: Thursday, November 22, 2018 - 9:34am

The vaquita marina, or little sea cow, is the most endangered marine mammal in the world, with fewer than 30 left in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. At this critical moment for the nearly-extinct porpoise, activists, scientists and legal fishermen are trying to do everything they can to protect the small porpoise.

Ambar Favela/KJZZ

The vaquita marina, or little sea cow, is the most endangered marine mammal in the world, with fewer than 30 left in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.

At this critical moment for the nearly-extinct porpoise, activists, scientists and legal fishermen are trying to do everything they can to protect the small porpoise.

But illegal fishing of an endangered fish that sells for thousands of dollars in Asia, competition for resources with struggling legal fishermen and the failures of conservation attempts leave many wondering if the vaquita has any chance left at survival.

One.
Narco-Fishing

Part 1: Narco-Fishing

The vaquita porpoise is a victim of the Sinaloa drug cartel who fish for a species in the same waters and sell on the Chinese black market. Part 1 of this series examines the dangers the totoaba trade presents to the vaquita and the efforts to fight back against illegal fishing.

Part 2: Competing For Survival

In the Upper Gulf of California, many people fish to survive. And while some fishermen support efforts to save the vaquita, other feel that their own survival and way of life is being destroyed. Part 2 of the series delves into the experiences of local fishermen and their complex relationship with the vaquita.

Part 3: Is There Hope?

Scientists, researchers and activists from all over the world have been working for years to find a way to save the vaquita. So far, nothing has worked. Part 3 of the series looks at what conservation efforts have failed, what’s being done now and what the future really looks like for the vaquita.

The activist sailors aboard Sea Shepherd’s big, white patrol ship in northern Mexico’s Sea of Cortez come from all over the world.

A recent crew included volunteers from Italy, France, Brazil, Mexico and the United States, among other places.

They’ve all joined the Los Angeles-based conservation society’s ship on the Sea of Cortez to help protect marine wildlife from cartel-backed poachers who use illegal fishing nets to hunt a huge, endangered fish called the totoaba. The totoaba’s swim bladder — an organ that controls buoyancy — is valuable on the black market in China.

But poachers’ gillnets also kill the world’s smallest and most endangered marine mammal — the vaquita marina.

“So we’ve got to do everything and anything we can to stop these poachers,” says Robert Peel, the ship’s captain. “Because their quest for easy money is going to exterminate a very nice little creature called the vaquita.”

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Sea Shepherd's flag waves in the breeze as the ship patrols the Sea of Cortez for abandoned fishing nets. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Sea Shepherd crew members aboard the ship. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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From left, Sea Shepherd crew members Ivan Silva and Jorge Amaya pilot the ship. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Sea Shepherd crew members Volcy Boilvein and Jorge Amaya see what might be an abandoned net on the ship's sonar. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Sea Shepherd patrols the Sea of Cortez for illegal gillnets. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Sea Shepherd crew members pull an illegal gillnet out of the ocean. Sea Shepherd
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A totoaba caught in a gillnet. Sea Shepherd
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Because of their similar size, the vaquita easily gets caught in totoaba gillnets. Omar Vidal/Proyecto Vaquita (1992)
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A man holds up a totoaba, which is nearly the same size as the vaquita. Omar Vidal/Proyecto Vaquita (1992)
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Totoaba dead on the beach of the Sea of Cortez. Sea Shepherd
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Sea Shepherd stores nets they have pulled from the ocean in a dirt lot on the outskirts of San Felipe, Baja California until they can be sent away to be recycled. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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A sea turtle shell found in the gillnets Sea Shepherd removed from the Sea of Cortez. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Fishermen who help clean the gillnets Sea Shepherd removes from the ocean often find bones, shells and the remains of dead animals. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Alfonso Blancafort, Baja California representative for SEMARNAT — the Mexican agency responsible for protecting the environment. Kendal Blust/KJZZ

The vaquita marina, or little sea cow, only lives in the uppermost part of the Sea of Cortez.

The little porpoise, sometimes called the panda of the sea because of the black markings around its eyes and mouth, has been critically endangered for decades. And its population has plunged in recent years, despite efforts to save it. Scientists estimated that there were nearly 600 vaquitas in 1997. By 2016, that dropped to 30. Now it could be as few as 15, or 12.

“And the number of vaquitas have been going down and down and down every year. So yeah, it’s really, really sad,” says J.P. Geoffroy, campaign leader for Sea Shepherd operations in the Sea of Cortez.

In fact, the vaquita’s numbers have dipped so low, some say it might not make it through another totoaba fishing season, when the large fish is spawning in the same part of the sea where the vaquita lives, from about November to May.

Totoaba swim bladders, or buches, are valuable on the black market in China. Elephant Action League

Totoaba gillnets are already illegal in this part of the Sea of Cortez. And hunting totoaba has been banned since 1975, when the 200-pound fish became critically endangered because of over fishing.

But that hasn’t stopped poachers.

“There’s a lot of demand in Asia for these species of totoaba,” says Alfonso Blancafort, Baja California state representative for the Mexican agency charged with protecting the environment (SEMARNAT).

The totoaba swim bladder — or buche — is called the “cocaine of the sea” it’s so lucrative on the black market in China, sometimes worth as much as $80,000 per kilo.

“As you can imagine, there is a lot of crime involved in these activities,” says Blancafort.

Totoaba bladders are trafficked by the same cartels that smuggle drugs, says Sea Shepherd’s Geoffroy.

“We are talking about a lot of money. And we know, too, they’re using the same ways to take it out of the country as they use for the drugs,” he says. “So, it’s the same people.”

Walls Of Death

Geoffroy drives out to a big dirt lot where Sea Shepherd stores the illegal nets they haul out of the ocean. They find hundreds every year.

Tangled, grimy piles of net spill out of disintegrating plastic bags heaped nearly 8-feet high in places. The nets will be cleaned and sent away to be recycled, so they can’t make their way back into the ocean, says Geoffroy.

Sea Shepherd campaign leader J.P. Geoffroy shows the large mesh of the totoaba gillnets that easily ensnare the vaquita marina. Kendal Blust/KJZZ

He calls the nets walls of death.

“It’s kind of murky, you don’t have visibility. And you’re just swimming around and hit a wall and die. That’s it,” he says.

And because adult totoaba, which can be over six-feet long and weigh as much as 200 pounds, are similar in size to the vaquita, the nets easily entangle and drown the small porpoise.

“Because they breathe air like we do. It’s a marine mammal. They need air to breathe. They need to go up and breathe,” Geoffroy says.

He says fighting poachers is an uphill battle. For every net Sea Shepherd pulls, another goes back in its place. A big part of the problem is lack of enforcement, he says.

Mexico has made strides against poaching — it’s created a refuge area, banned fishing nets and sent the military in to patrol for totoaba traffickers.

In September, Baja California state police detained a suspected totoaba smuggler with connections to the Sinaloa cartel. But then he was let go, rearrested and ultimately released on bail.

Brooke Bessesen is a wildlife researcher who wrote a book on the vaquita’s plight. She says it’s clear authorities are reluctant to prosecute totoaba smugglers.

She says there are “government officials who are either potentially taking money and/or fearful, spooked, and unwilling to speak up.”

But everyone knows that poachers are still out there, she says, casting nets in the dead of night, sometimes even in the middle of the day.

And in the meantime, the vaquita edges closer to extinction.

Kendal Blust/KJZZ
Two.
Competing For Survival

Part 1: Narco-Fishing

The vaquita porpoise is a victim of the Sinaloa drug cartel who fish for a species in the same waters and sell on the Chinese black market. Part 1 of this series examines the dangers the totoaba trade presents to the vaquita and the efforts to fight back against illegal fishing.

Part 2: Competing For Survival

In the Upper Gulf of California, many people fish to survive. And while some fishermen support efforts to save the vaquita, other feel that their own survival and way of life is being destroyed. Part 2 of the series delves into the experiences of local fishermen and their complex relationship with the vaquita.

Part 3: Is There Hope?

Scientists, researchers and activists from all over the world have been working for years to find a way to save the vaquita. So far, nothing has worked. Part 3 of the series looks at what conservation efforts have failed, what’s being done now and what the future really looks like for the vaquita.

Just as the sun peeks over the horizon, casting an orange glow across the water, a group of fishermen takes off from docks in San Felipe, Baja California. Their small, blue-and-white fishing boats bounce and rattle out into the waves of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.

Ruben Orozco wears a Chicago Bulls baseball cap and a gray, paint-stained sweatshirt as he heads out to sea.

“We’ve got to protect her,” he says of the vaquita. “Because she’s going extinct.”

Orozco has spent his entire life on the water living next to the endangered vaquita porpoise. Now he’s among a group of fishermen working to remove illegal and abandoned fishing nets that threaten the shy animal from the ocean.

Until a few years ago, Orozco and other San Felipe fishermen would would have been the ones casting nets.

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The sun rises on the Sea of Cortez as fishermen prepare their boats in the harbor. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Fisherman Ruben Orozco looks out at the Sea of Cortez. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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The sun rises over the ocean in San Felipe while fishing boats go out to look for illegal nets. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Fishermen use GPS to chart areas where they are looking for illegal fishing nets. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Small pangas, or fishing boats, are out on the water looking for illegal nets that threaten the vaquita marina. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Mexican authorities patrol the Sea of Cortez for illegal poachers. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Alina Venegas (left) and Armando Castro help organize the fishermen who search for illegal totoaba fishing nets. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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A fishing trawler in the Sea of Cortez. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Fisherman Ruben Orozco sits in the front of his small boat, or panga. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Boats docked in the San Felipe harbor. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Fishermen from San Felipe fuel up their boats after spending a day looking for illegal fishing nets in the Sea of Cortez. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Lorenzo Garcia is president of the largest federation of fishermen in San Felipe. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Marcela Vasquez, director of the University of Arizona's Center for Latin American Studies. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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People enjoy the beach in San Felipe, Baja California. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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San Felipe, Baja California is a small fishing village that has become the center of conservation efforts to protect the vaquita marina. Kendal Blust/KJZZ

Fishing has been the lifeblood of this 5,000-family village for a century. But fishermen’s gillnets were banned here four years ago in an effort to protect the vaquita marina. With fewer than 30 left, the little porpoise is on the verge of extinction.

Like many people in communities in the northern Sea of Cortez, Orozco used to believe the vaquita was a myth.

“But not anymore,” he says.

The vaquita’s plight has brought scientists and activists from around the world to San Felipe, and with them has come more information about the little porpoise. Orozco says he’s seen a vaquita now, and he’s become invested in protecting it for future generations.

“For our grandchildren, our children, generations to come, so they will know (the vaquita),” he says. “Otherwise, they’ll never get the chance.”

At the same time, he says, fishermen need to return to the ocean. Fishing is their livelihood.

Losing Livelihoods

“We want to save the vaquita, too,” says Lorenzo Garcia, president of the largest fishermen’s federation in San Felipe. “ But we don’t want to be left without work, without a living.”

A map of the vaquita refuge and gillnet exclusion zone in the Sea of Cortez. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

He says fishing bans in the name of conservation have the people of San Felipe without work. He says it’s destroying their town — shops are closing and children are showing up to school ragged and hungry.

“It’s a huge social issue,” he says.

The problem is, fishermen’s gillnets are considered the leading threat to the vaquita.

In addition to trying to stop black market poaching, the Mexican government has outlawed all gillnets in the vaquita’s range. In return it promised compensation for fishermen being put out of work.

But fishermen say the compensation arrives late and sometimes not at all.

“San Felipe cannot live off the compensation only,” says Sunshine Rodriguez.

He’s sitting under a palapa on the beach. In the distance mariachis serenade families out for an evening stroll.

Rodriguez is an outspoken and controversial leader in San Felipe.

He says he won’t let fishermen take the blame for the vaquita’s demise.

While many conservationists believe even legal fishing nets endanger the vaquita, Rodriguez says there’s no proof — the mesh of their nets is too small to ensnare the little porpoise.

“So that’s where I come in as the perfect enemy because I won’t shut up and I won’t let them do whatever they’ve been pleased to,” he says.

And, he says, fishermen are willing to use different gear, but the government hasn’t put forward an alternative that works.

“The only thing these people want is to have a decent living. They’re not criminals,” he says.

TOP: A patrol boat enters the harbor in San Felipe. LEFT: Sunshine Rodriguez is an outspoken advocate for fishermen in San Felipe. RIGHT: Clauia Olimón leads a fishermen's cooperative dedicated to using alternative fishing gear. Kendal Blust/KJZZ

But banning legal fishing has pushed some desperate fishermen into poaching, says federation president Garcia.

“People have to find some way to make a living,” he says. “I don’t justify their fishing either. But they have to find some way to feed themselves.”

He says when fishermen are struggling to feed their families and know that hunting totoaba pays, they’ll risk it. Especially when enforcement is almost non-existent.

Besides, he says, banning fishing hasn’t helped the vaquita. Its numbers are still declining.

And, he says, there are other issues to consider — like the effects lack of water from the Colorado River have on the vaquita’s ecosystem, which was once brackish when it had freshwater inflow from the now-dammed river.

Some researchers say the reduced flow of the Colorado River has almost certainly affected the vaquita, but others argue that it’s a distraction from the real problem — gillnet fishing.

“In the meantime, we’re the ones paying the price,” Garcia says. “And the vaquita is being affected, too. And we have to care about the vaquita. But first, I have to think about my kids.”

Fishermen use hooks attached to the back of their boats to snag illegal nets in the Sea of Cortez. Kendal Blust/KJZZ

Sustainable Future

“This is not sustainable,” says Claudia Olimon.

She’s the leader of a fishermen’s cooperative that’s dedicated to using alternative gear and creating sustainable fisheries in the Sea of Cortez.

The fishermen in the cooperative have all given up their gillnets and are working with conservationists to remove illegal nets from the water. But that can’t go on forever.

“Fishing is going to exist sooner or later, so how? With which gear?” she asks, adding that long-term solutions have to take fishermen’s perspectives into account.

“Instead of looking at single species conservation we should be looking at the ecosystem, to try to protect it. And part of this ecosystem is the human populations that live within it,” says Marcela Vasquez, an anthropologist and director of the University of Arizona’s Center for Latin American Studies.

She’s been studying fishing communities in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez for years, and says putting more pressure on fishermen is counterproductive.

“And for them, fishing is not just a source of money,” she says. “It is something that they love. It is an art.”

She believes if there’s any hope for the vaquita, it’s creating legal, sustainable fisheries in communities that share the water with the little porpoise. Because the fishermen aren’t going anywhere.

Fishermen belong to the sea, and the sea belongs to the fishermen, Garcia says.

“And we’re going to fight for our ocean,” he says. “This is where we’ll stay, fighting for what’s ours.”

Three.
Is There Hope?

Part 1: Narco-Fishing

The vaquita porpoise is a victim of the Sinaloa drug cartel who fish for a species in the same waters and sell on the Chinese black market. Part 1 of this series examines the dangers the totoaba trade presents to the vaquita and the efforts to fight back against illegal fishing.

Part 2: Competing For Survival

In the Upper Gulf of California, many people fish to survive. And while some fishermen support efforts to save the vaquita, other feel that their own survival and way of life is being destroyed. Part 2 of the series delves into the experiences of local fishermen and their complex relationship with the vaquita.

Part 3: Is There Hope?

Scientists, researchers and activists from all over the world have been working for years to find a way to save the vaquita. So far, nothing has worked. Part 3 of the series looks at what conservation efforts have failed, what’s being done now and what the future really looks like for the vaquita.

“Bienvenidos al Nido,” says Francisco Iñegas. “Welcome to El Nido.”

He walks across what look like huge, gray connector blocks fitted together into a floating pathway. Then he climbs up into El Nido — an open-sea-aquarium just off the coast of the small town of San Felipe in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez.

“The totoaba are over here,” he says, showing two sea-pens enclosed in nets where a giant, endangered fish called the totoaba is being farmed.

He tosses some fish-food pellets into the corrals, and dozens of totoaba swim to the surface, gulp up the pellets, then dive back under the murky water.

This floating aquarium was meant to save a small, nearly-extinct porpoise called the vaquita marina.

“We came here to help the vaquita,” says Juan Carlos Vivanco. “Let’s say, to save it.”

Vivanco is director of the company Aquario Oceánico. His team brought the El Nido aquarium to the Sea of Cortez a year ago to house a captive population of vaquitas.

But capturing the porpoise proved too stressful for the little animal. One had to be released almost immediately, and another died in the process.

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Marine biologist Mauricio Nájera talks with fishermen who are helping to monitor the vaquita marina. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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These sea-pens in El Nido were originally meant to house a captive population of vaquitas. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Francisco Iñegas holds up totoaba fish-food pellets in El Nido. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Farmed totoaba swim to the surface of their pens to get food. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Pens where totoaba are being farmed in El Nido. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Julio Cesar Rubio pulls out a CPod used to monitor the location of vaquitas in the Sea of Cortez. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Marine biologist Mauricio Nájera uses an acoustic monitoring system to find out where vaquitas are swimming and how many there are. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Fisherman Jose Luis Romero, 58, helps with an acoustic monitoring system that tracks vaquitas. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Julio Cesar Rubio talks with Mauricio Nájera as they head out to collect data from an acoustic monitoring system that tracks the vaquita marina. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Jose Luis Romero heads out to the Sea of Cortez where he helps monitor for vaquitas. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Fishermen Jose Luis Romero (right) and Julio Cesar Rubio head out to the Sea of Cortez where they help with an acoustic monitoring system that tracks the vaquita. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Henoch Rizo is director of operations for the non-profit Museo de la Ballena in the Upper Gulf of California. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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Museo de la Ballena uses a ship to help remove gillnets from the vaquita's habitat in the upper Sea of Cortez. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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The Aquario Oceánico team in San Felipe. Kendal Blust/KJZZ
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El Nido in the Sea of Cortez was meant to house a captive population of vaquitas, but is now being used to farm totoaba. Kendal Blust/KJZZ

With fewer than 30 vaquitas remaining, scientists decided it would be too risky to try again.

El Nido might have been the vaquita’s last chance for survival. But Vivanco says the vaquita’s supporters refuse to give up hope. And out of that failure came a new plan.

“The idea is, let’s try totoaba,” he says.

Illegally hunted totoaba are considered the leading threat to vaquitas, which get tangled in poachers’ gillnets and drown.

Totoaba swim bladders, or buches, sell for tens of thousands of dollars on the black market in China. And cartel-backed smuggling of the fish has surged since 2012.

Vivanco says by farming totoaba, they can create a legal trade for both totoaba meat and swim bladders. He thinks that will undermine poachers.

“Help totoaba and you will be helping vaquitas,” he says.

Probability Game

The vaquita’s situation is desperate — the reality is, no one knows if it will survive. But marine biologist Mauricio Nàjera thinks there’s reason to be hopeful. In September, scientists spotted six of the shy porpoises, including a mother and calf.

“It’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “A hope that the species will survive.”

All the vaquita needs now, he says, is time to recuperate its population naturally.

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But species recovery is a numbers game. And when a population dips as low as the vaquita’s, it isn’t easy to make a comeback, says John Koprowski.

“When you get down to 30 animals or 50 animals or 15 animals, the probability game is really working against you,” he says.

Koprowski is director of the University of Arizona School of Natural Resources and the Environment.

He says the vaquita’s small range provides natural challenges. “And then you throw in some challenges created by humans. That’s when things become quite dire.”

But that doesn’t mean recovery is impossible, he says. Other animals have successfully come back from populations are low as the vaquitas before.

“I think that most conservation biologists at some level are optimists,” Koprowski says. “We’re doing it because we think there’s an opportunity to make a difference. I hate to give up too early.”

“That’s the case with vaquita,” Lorenzo Rojas agrees. “We have a very good chance that recovery is possible.”

Mauricio Nájera holds up a CPod that is used to collect data for an acoustic monitoring system that tracks vaquitas. Kendal Blust/KJZZ

Rojas coordinates marine mammal research and conservation in Mexico.

He says vaquitas appear to be well-nourished and healthy; they have enough genetic diversity to survive; and scientists recently discovered that the females can have calves every year, instead of every other year like they initially believed.

The key now is to protect them from outside threats, he says. And that will depend in part on Mexico’s president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obredor, who takes office Dec. 1.

Alejandro Oliveras, a Mexican representative for the Center for Biological Diversity, says there’s a lot of uncertainty about what Mexico’s incoming president Andrés Manuel López Obredor will do to protect the vaquita.

Many fishermen think he’ll re-open this part of the Sea of Cortez to gillnet fishing. Others believe he’ll crack down on illegal poaching.

“But if the new president doesn’t do anything to protect the vaquita, it’s likely that it will go extinct during his administration,” Oliveras says.

'Hope Dies Last'

Back at the harbor in San Felipe, the wooden docks creak and sway.

Henoch Rizo is sitting in a boat the nonprofit Museo de Ballena uses to help pull illegal fishing nets that threaten the vaquita out of the Sea of Cortez.

The task is daunting, Rizo says, and there’s no question that the odds are stacked against the little porpoise.

“But like we say in Mexico, ‘hope dies last,’” he says. “Until we see that there’s not a single vaquita left, we’ll have hope that it can be saved.”

Kendal Blust/KJZZ
 

 

Part 1: Narco-Fishing

The vaquita porpoise is a victim of the Sinaloa drug cartel who fish for a species in the same waters and sell on the Chinese black market. Part 1 of this series examines the dangers the totoaba trade presents to the vaquita and the efforts to fight back against illegal fishing.

Part 2: Competing For Survival

In the Upper Gulf of California, many people fish to survive. And while some fishermen support efforts to save the vaquita, others feel that their own survival and way of life is being destroyed. Part 2 of the series delves into the experiences of local fishermen and their complex relationship with the vaquita.

Part 3: Is There Hope?

Scientists, researchers and activists from all over the world have been working for years to find a way to save the vaquita. So far, nothing has worked. Part 3 of the series looks at what conservation efforts have failed, what’s being done now and what the future really looks like for the vaquita.

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