In Mexico, the race is on to save a small, gray porpoise that is on the brink of extinction. It’s called the vaquita, which is Spanish for “small cow.”
Scientists believe only 30 remain in the warm, shallow waters of the Gulf of California, between Baja California’s peninsula and mainland Mexico — the only place they live in the world.
Twenty years ago, more than 600 vaquitas lived in the Gulf of California. In recent years, Mexico put forth an unprecedented and expensive effort to try and save the animal — but the vaquita’s chances don’t look good.
The town of San Felipe in the state of Baja California Norte, with a population of just about 30,000, is ground zero for the fight to save the tiny porpoise. It’s also where international environmentalists, scientists and local fishermen are entangled in the fight to save the world’s most endangered marine mammal.
Just offshore, Caroline Scholl-Poensgen of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a U.S. environmental group, leans over the stern of a 180-foot-long boat, the M/V Sam Simon.
After giving the okay to her fellow deckhands, she lets go of a large metal hook, called a port ray. With a large splash, the hook drops into the water and is dragged behind the vessel, one of two anti-poaching ships belonging to the group, which is scouring the upper Gulf of California for illegal fishing nets.
Standing on the bridge with San Felipe’s dry, brown shoreline behind her, Oona Layolle, the boat’s captain, says the large nets pose the biggest threat to the vaquita.
“Those nets are just killing everything, so it is important that they just get out,” says the 32-year-old French citizen.
‘They have nowhere to go’
The tiny porpoise, with black patches around its eyes and mouth, is dying at a catastrophic rate. The population was estimated at 100 in 2014, 60 the next year and just half that in 2016.
Local fishermen use large gill nets to catch the giant totoaba fish that also share these waters. The fish has become a prize catch in China, where its bladder is believed to have medicinal properties, and can sell for thousands of dollars.
But the gill nets also snag the vaquita, says Barbara Taylor, a conservation specialist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in La Jolla, Calif.
“So they have nowhere to go and it does make them very vulnerable,” she says.
Two years ago President Enrique Pena Nieto banned the use of large gill nets in more than 5,000 square miles of the vaquita’s habitat. He also put up $74 million to pay local fishermen to stay out of the water, and he sent Mexico’s marines to patrol for poachers.
Despite all those unprecedented measures, Taylor says the illegal fishing continues. Five vaquitas died just last month, caught in the nets.
“The ones where we could actually look at the dead bodies and evaluate what killed them,” she says, “they had the gill net marks from this illegal fishery for totoaba.”
Drones over the water
The Sea Shepherd boat, equipped with drones and radar, arrived five months ago to help Mexico’s marines in their patrols.
At nightfall, the busiest time for illegal fishermen, Carlotta Sanlarri of Italy is watching the ship’s radar. She spots suspected poachers’ small boats, called pangas.
She picks up as many as 18 hits on the ship’s radar. She’s closely watching one in particular. “It’s inside the vaquita refuge,” she says.
The captain sends out a drone to get a closer look.
At the back of the vessel, Tom Hutton, 19, a security camera repairman from Ireland, prepares the flying machine, equipped with night vision cameras. “Bridge, bridge, drone, I’m going to take off now,” he says through a walkie talkie.
It’s off — and within minutes it’s hovering above the small boat about two miles away. On his control screen Hutton can see everything, including three people in the boat.
Hutton says it’s clear the suspected poachers know they’ve been spotted.
“They dropped their net right there when they seen the drone, they dropped it in the water,” he says, his eyes glued to the screen.
Hutton speculates the fishermen must have thought the drone belonged to the Mexican Navy. Given that a new law went into effect in December stiffening prison penalties for illegal totoaba trafficking, the men apparently decided to ditch any evidence and head back to shore.
“Currently, they are running away at 60 kilometers an hour and the drone is just chasing them,” Hutton says.
Using the drone’s coordinates, the Sea Shepherd ship’s crew spends the next two hours searching the area for the fishermen’s illegal net. They find it, then destroy it — just as they have with more than 300 pieces of illegal fishing gear, including 200 gill nets they’ve found in the past five months.
This work has made them heroes among environmentalists and many scientists, but also enemies of some of San Felipe’s fishermen.
‘We don’t know if she will survive’
Tensions have been running high in the town, and boiled over in March. On the town’s waterfront, fishermen burned a small panga with the names of environmental groups, including the Sea Shepherds, written on the side. As the panga went up in flames, the angry crowd broke into the Mexican national anthem.
“The boat … that order was given by me,” says Sunshine Rodriguez Pena, who heads the largest federation of fishermen in San Felipe. “That boat was not in the water, that was a protest.”
Rodriquez, who was raised on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border, says authorities in Mexico are paying more attention to foreign environmentalists than the needs of their own citizens. He’s worried about calls for a Mexican shrimp boycott — the mainstay of legal fishing in the Gulf — in hopes of pressuring the government to do more to save the vaquita, by reducing net fishing.
Rodriguez says that the vaquita is pretty much sure to go extinct, and that he’ll keep fighting the environmental groups.
“They’ve made me the enemy of the world, but the hero of my town,” he says. And “any day, any time, I’d rather be the hero of my town.”
Next month will be critical in the fight to save the world’s 30 remaining vaquitas — and for the fishermen: The $74 million Mexican program compensating them for not fishing ends, and there’s no word whether it will be renewed.
Efre Pacheco says he received his last check on May 1, and without another one coming, he’ll have no choice but to go back out to sea. “I don’t know how to do anything else,” he says.
Pressure also is building on the Mexican government to make the gill net ban permanent in the vaquitas’ habitat. The World Wildlife Fund has joined the call. as has actor and activist Leonardo DiCaprio, who engaged in with Mexico’s president on Twitter earlier this month regarding vaquita protection.
The Mexican government also hasn’t provided a vaquita-safe net it had promised. The country’s two main fishing regulatory agencies did not respond to NPR’s multiple requests for comment.
Back on the bridge of the Sea Shepherd’s ship, Layolle, the captain, says it’s not time to give up. “For the vaquita, we don’t know if she will survive or not,” she says, “so we have to fight until the end.”
On land, an international consortium has recommended a last-ditch effort to save the animal: Capture as many of them as they can and keep them in captivity. That won’t start until October.