Viva la Vaquita
Locals join campaign to save the world’s rarest porpoise.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
It was like looking for a ghost. Every day in October 2008, Team Vaquita members would rise before sunrise in San Felipe, Mexico, to scout the Gulf of California for a glimpse of the world’s tiniest porpoise. Underwater microphones trailed partner vessels in an effort to record the vaquita’s echolocation clicks amidst a cacophony of shrimp percussion.
After 17 days without a sighting, the suspicions of some Baja fishermen began to resonate. Maybe there were no more vaquitas. Maybe the timid “desert porpoise” – which looks cuddly as a plush toy, dressed up in dark lipstick and eyeshadow – had already vanished from our planet.
But on the 18th day, the seafaring team members spotted one, two, three signature dorsal fins in the distance. Over the next several hours they feverishly photographed and videotaped about 10 of the legendary animals – creating the first high-quality images of healthy-looking Phocoena sinus in their habitat.
The vaquita lives!
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Tom Jefferson, a marine mammal biologist with NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Calif. (and a Moss Landing Marine Labs alum), snapped hundreds of vaquita photos as part of the 2008 scouting expedition by an international coalition of conservation groups. The goal was to capture images of the famously elusive porpoise in an effort to help pull it back from the brink of extinction.
The situation is desperate: Biologists figure there are 125 to 150 vaquitas left. Gillnet fishing, particularly for shrimp, kills about 40 vaquitas every year – far outpacing their ability to reproduce. “At the rate they’ve been dying in nets,” Jefferson says, “it’s estimated they have two to three years.”
The world’s smallest porpoises, vaquitas measure less than 5 feet long and weigh up to 120 pounds. They stick within a 400-square-mile range in warm, shallow waters of the northwestern Gulf of California, munching small fish near the shallow seafloor. Since the 2006 extinction of the baiji, or Yangtze River dolphin, vaquitas have taken the title of the world’s most critically endangered marine mammal.
But thanks to its relatively clean habitat and single-source threat, “this species has a better chance at survival than the baiji ever did,” Jefferson says.
The Mexican government has already taken a major step toward protecting its only endemic sea mammal by establishing the North Gulf of California Biosphere Reserve, but vaquita habitat south of its border remains unprotected. A program to pay fishermen not to use gillnets has yielded questionable results, and its funding was cut last June. Doubly hit by the recession and swine flu, the government appears to be putting vaquita conservation on the back burner.
“Unfortunately this species can’t handle that lack of attention,” Jefferson says. “It needs constant attention to survive.”
Conservationists are now pressuring the Mexican government – under environmentally receptive President Felipe de Jesus Calderon – to further restrict the use of gillnets in vaquita habitat and convince fishermen to switch to methods that don’t harm them. Consumers can help by avoiding Gulf of California shrimp caught or processed by seafood supplier Ocean Garden, and asking restaurants about their sources.
Locally, whale advocates are schooling for a solution. The American Cetacean Society’s Monterey Bay Chapter granted Jefferson $1,000 to continue his vaquita research. In early September, Jefferson and a group of local cetacean activists (rallied by Weekly sales associate and ACSMB board president Diane Glim) formed the Viva Vaquita Task Force in an effort to educate the public about the vanishing porpoise.
Task force members include retired marine institute librarians and ACSMB charter members Sheila and Alan Baldridge, Team Vaquita biologist and ACSMB scientific adviser Tom Kieckhefer, and ACSMB board members Dida Kutz, Rene Rodriguez and Sally Eastham.
Randy Puckett, the Prunedale artist and ACSMB charter member whose life-sized gray whale and orca sculptures hang in the Monterey Bay Aquarium, is donating half the sale price of a bronze vaquita sculpture to vaquita research and education. And Maris Sidenstecker I and II – mother-daughter founders of Save the Whales – penned the song, “Vaquita Chiquita” to publicize their outreach campaign.
“There are so few,” Glim says of the vanishing vaquitas. “And they’re so savable.”