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Vaquita: Extinction in Real Time

Updated: Dec 4, 2022

Brooke Bessesen, marine biologist and author, came to speak with our chapter in Redwood City, California on February 2, 2019. Her book, “Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez,” an inspiring and honest read, came out in Fall 2018. I read the book and immediately contacted her on a whim. Bessesen graciously accepted an invitation to give a talk about vaquita, have a question and answer session, and provide a book signing.

The vaquita is the most endangered marine mammal in the world, and it is endemic to the Sea of Cortez in Baja, California. We are the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of The Wildlife Society, so this issue is far away from us, right? Nope. This is a local issue.

Gillnets, used to hunt the critically endangered fish, totoaba, are the main source of vaquita deaths. Totoaba are protected, and poaching occurs to collect their swim bladders. These swim bladders are dried and smuggled across the Mexican border to the U.S. Some swim bladders stay here in California, while the rest are shipped out via the Port of Los Angeles or the Port of San Francisco, where they are sent to China for “medicinal” use or in food. Without evidence, toroaba swim bladders have been used to treat everything from fertility to acne.

There are a lot of moving pieces in the story of the vaquita, and they are simply an unfortunate casualty in a story of greed and corruption. China, the Mexican cartel, and local fishermen, are all fighting against the Mexican Navy, biologists, non-profit organizations like the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Vaquita CPR, and Sea Shepherd Society. And this really only scratches at the surface of what Bessesen’s book goes into.

Add the complication that the vaquita is a porpoise that is extremely illusive, and prone to capture myopathy, which has meant that captive-breeding programs will not help the species. They die from capture stress. Bessesen shared this information with us, and more. What can we do? How can we help? Is it our responsibility? (To which, I follow with the question, how is it not?)

After the talk, question and answer session, book signing, and postcard writing to the Mexican president, every single person stayed in the room. We were all so in awe and so inspired that, as strangers, we all came together to brainstorm. What could we do to help? How can we make a difference? Know the facts. Raise awareness. Support eco-minded fishermen. Vote for protective laws. Be a compassionate consumer. Educate our locals, especially with our large Chinese population in the SF Bay Area. And so much more. Being in a room with so many people ready to stand up and help was incredibly moving.

However, I must say that the most poignant, powerful moment came when someone asked Bessesen about her drive to help the species. She told us that the author of a book about Yangtze river dolphin, or baiji, once said that the species went extinct when no one was looking. If the vaquita is going to go extinct, she wants the whole world watching.

No more turning a blind eye, no more pretending like there is nothing to be done. We started the year with about 30 vaquita remaining, it is April, and we may now be down to 12. World, are you watching?

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