She has a heartwarming expression. We may never see her again. The vaquita’s farewell is near. Current conditions only favor its loss. Scientists estimate that only seven to eight specimens of the marine mammal remain. The inaction of Mexican authorities against illegal fishing in its refuge zone is fatal.
Trying to prevent the extinction of the vaquita is a mortal danger for biologists in Mexico. Why? Because they are threatened by illegal fishing mafias. Not because they persecute this species. It happens to be collateral damage from totoaba fishing. It is a fish whose swim bladder is coveted for its supposed aphrodisiac powers in China. Up to 60,000 dollars are paid for it. More than cocaine.
“It’s a war between illegal fishing and us,” Diego Ruiz Sabio says from his exile. He was threatened in Mexico. From a distance, he is co-director of the Whale Museum in La Paz, Baja California Sur. They remove the gill nets used by poachers, in which the vaquita get trapped and die. But they are losing the battle.
The decline in porpoise numbers in recent decades has been precipitous. If in 1997 there were almost 600 vaquita, in 2016 there were 60. Just one year later, they fell by half. The Chinese market began to covet the totoaba. Then began a fierce predation controlled by organized crime. The totoaba is also in danger of extinction. Last November scientists counted in a single day 117 boats illegally fishing in the vaquita refuge zone. “There is an absolute disinterest in the preservation of this species. They think it is easier to let it go extinct and turn the page,” laments the biologist.
The Subprocuraduría de Recursos Naturales issued a statement. “Profepa carries out maritime inspection and surveillance tours. They seek to exercise the rule of law at sea, preventing the navigation of any type of vessel.” The U.S. environmental organization Sea Shepherd knows this is a lie.
On December 31, 2020, a group of five boats with poachers threw Molotov cocktails at activists. They were trying to remove an illegal net in the refuge area. In the attack, one of the boats crashed into the Sea Shepherd vessel. Two fishermen were killed. A mob broke out in the nearby fishing village of San Felipe. Four vehicles, two boats and a Whale Museum boat were burned.
The government prohibited anyone other than the Navy from removing the nets. A useless and counterproductive measure. “They limit us exclusively to identifying the nets. But we are not allowed to remove them. We have to notify the authorities and wait for them to pick them up,” says Ruiz Sabio.
The vaquita’s farewell seems a fait accompli. In the census at the end of 2021, between one and two calves were sighted. That has raised a sliver of hope. But the Mexican government doesn’t seem really interested in rescuing her. Only time will tell if she wins, on her own, the battle.