Vaquita conservation: What can we do to save the species?

The vaquita crisis in the Gulf of California is not well known and represents the plight of a species on the brink of extinction. The small porpoise is nearly extinct due to being caught in illegal gillnets set up for another endangered species, the totoaba. The totoaba’s swim bladder is infamously known as the “cocaine of the sea”, since it fetches a hefty price in China. Several conservation groups have attempted to save the vaquita from these gillnets, like pulling nets out of the water or cutting nets free so other animals do not drown. However, with a population as low as 19, the vaquita is already in danger of extinction (ex. population inbreeding). I was wondering if any of y’all knew ways we could help conserve this fragile species, considering there are limited ways to do so.

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I would suggest Porpoise Conservation Society, Center for Biological Diversity, and Sea Shepherd, all of which have options on their websites.

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For those not familiar with the story, I found this article very moving. Mongabay also has good updates on what is happening. I agree that for most of us, donating to a relevant organisation is the best way to help. If you want to take your support to another level, organisations such as Sea Shepherd depend heavily on volunteers.

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Thank you so much for the suggestions and articles. The first article was indeed very moving and I’ll be sure to spread awareness about it. I’ve never heard of Mongaby, but upon reading their updates and articles I’ve discovered they’re a great resource for educating others on the vaquita crisis. Volunteering for Sea Shepherd is something I’ve wanted to do for a while so hopefully others can help join the fight as well.

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Thanks! I’ll be sure to spread awareness about the plight of the vaquita through the resources on these websites.

in all honesty I dont think there is a way to save them at this point, the population has dwindled so low that even if everything causing them to die went away overnight inbreeding would most likely eventually get to them. Imo the Vaquita will sadly just have to be a grim reminder of what happens if people dont act fast enough.

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Also forgot to mention it, but amid all the talking about Vaquita theres another animal that gets forgotten about, Totoaba. Large Drum that are partially the reason for the decline of the Vaquita, as intense fishing for Totoaba heavily affected both them and Vaquita. Totoaba are still poached for their swim bladders, and their spawning grounds, the mouth of the Colorado River, have been heavily affected by damming and diversion of water, which has left the mouth much more saline than it should be, and juvenile Totoaba need brackish water to thrive. Unlike Vaquita however, Totoaba are bred in captivity in farms and the like

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I agree that the population may be too low already, and that extinction for the species is inevitable in the near future. I’m still holding onto a sliver of hope that conservation efforts by Sea Shepherd and other groups will allow the species to rebound, but with such a low population genetic inbreeding is most likely occuring. The SciShow did an excelent job explaining the plight of the vaquita and how we can learn from inaction to save other species. Ultimately, I’m divided on the subject on how much time the vaquita has left to thrive but hopefully we can learn from our mistakes, just like you stated.

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Thank you for mentioning the totoaba as well. It’s sad that its plight is largely overlooked in the fight against extinction for the vaquita. Damming and poaching via illegal gillnets has dramatically decreased their population numbers. Just like you stated, totoaba can be bred in captivity, so this most likely gives the species an upperhand over the vaquita in the fight against extinction. Still, it is important to continue to fight for both species in the short time they have left on the planet.

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Sea Shepherd is fine as long as all they’re doing is removing drift nets left out, but when they start taking direct action against the fishing boats in the area they’re just exacerbating the underlying socio-economic problems that led to this problem to begin with. Here are a couple opinion blog posts that explain why, to an extent, SS is at best unhelpful. That blog has quite a series on them- just search “Sea Shepherd” or “Paul Watson” in the search bar.

You may want to read up on the organization before you hop on a boat with them. It sounds like their activities in the Gulf of California are maybe generally better than the “Whale Wars” lunacy, but in my opinion your money would be much better spent donating to real conservation groups or doing some eco-tourism in the area. I never thought I’d sent a link to anything by the Brookings Institution, but this is a surprisingly spot-on and pragmatic article. See also the Porpoise Conservation Society link ash2016 posted.

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Souls of the Vermillion Sea by the Wild Lens Collective (https://vaquitafilm.com) is a thoughtful take on the subject with a lot of real talk in the spirit of Erik Vance’s piece “Goodbye to the friend I never met.”

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There were a few articles about a month ago indicating that based on a genetic analysis of the species, they had already gone through a major population contraction in the distant past, and the selective pressures from that contraction helped to weed out genes that may be detrimental to such a low population (apparently, the population was always low; at its height it was only about 2500 individuals). I’m no expert on the topic, but based on a lot of material I’ve read, inbreeding depression is far from a black-and-white issue. See the Chatham black robin, the undisputed champion of just how far a species can decline and ultimately bounce back. Even large marine mammals can do this; see the northern elephant seal. The Porpoise Conservation link above lays out some good arguments for why the species isn’t past the point of no return.

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I know that last year efforts were made to capture some individuals and try to breed them in captivity. Those efforts unfortunately failed. At this point unless something dramatically changes they will go extinct. There is hope as the California Condors recovered from only 27 individuals.

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I wonder whether the US, if we were willing, could do something to aid the Mexican Navy, which is fighting the good fight against the Totoaba poachers? Would more aerial surveillance aircraft and/or helicopters (and maintenance personnel for these), or some other form of material assistance, help? I really don’t want to give up on this species. I want us to perform a miracle and save it. Perhaps as much as anything, as a sort of marker in the sand–we will not allow this to happen, no matter what it takes.

I don’t know that fighting the repercussions of imperialism with more militarism is the answer. Rather, repairing the economy of the area so that the cartels don’t have as much appeal seems to be the best hope of ending unsustainable fishing practices.

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