The last days of the vaquita

Despite a last-ditch effort by a group of radical conservationists, the vaquita — a small porpoise found only in Mexico’s Gulf of California — is going extinct, and will likely disappear this year, reports Ben Goldfarb in FERN’s latest story, published with Pacific Standard.

The tragic irony is that the vaquita isn’t going extinct because of overfishing or pollution or some rapacious invasive species. Rather, it is collateral damage.

“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,” writes Goldfarb. “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. Demand for totoaba bladders soared in 2008, driven by an influx of cash into the Chinese economy; the dried organs became popular investment vehicles, a commodity as fungible as gold bars. Seventy-five hundred miles away, Mexico’s black market erupted.”

“Today, fewer than 30 vaquitas remain,” Goldfarb explains. “They are the world’s most endangered marine mammal. ‘Every time I see one, I wonder: Is this the last one I’m going to see? Is this the last one anyone’s going to see?’ says Bob Pitman, an ecologist who, in 1993, was the first to survey the shy and elusive porpoise. Like most people invested in the porpoise’s survival, he often sighs heavily. The word intractable is a fixture of his vocabulary. ‘We talk about extinction as a glib abstraction. But it’s real, it’s happening, and vaquita are next in line.’ ”