Two years ago I traveled to the town of San Felipe, Mexico in the Northern Gulf of California for the first time. We were just beginning production on our documentary film about the struggle to save the vaquita, and although the situation was quite dire, there was a great deal of hope among the small community of scientists working to save this unique marine mammal species. That first trip of mine coincided with the 2015 vaquita survey effort – a two-month long mission designed to assess the status of the population and determine an accurate population estimate for the species.
It was determined at that time that only about 60 vaquitas remained – a crisis for sure, but there was hope because the Mexican government had recently implemented a ban on the use of all gillnets within the vaquita’s range. It was thought by many that this ban would halt the gillnet fishing that was decimating the vaquita population through inadvertent bycatch – but unfortunately this ban did nothing to stop the already burgeoning illegal totoaba fishery.
It was this illegal fishery for the totoaba – a large fish, also listed as endangered – that was the main driver of the vaquita’s decline, and this illegal fishery has intensified quite dramatically since my first visit to San Felipe in 2015. The totoaba is harvested for its swim bladder, which is worth tens of thousands of dollars in China, and because this large fish is roughly the same size as the vaquita, the nets designed to catch them are also extremely effective at entangling and killing the vaquita.
Over these past two years we have seen the vaquita’s population plummet from about 60 individuals to the current best estimate of 15. And now we are on the cusp of one of the most dramatic rescue efforts ever conceived to save a species from extinction. Over 100 scientists are involved in this effort, which will involved an attempt to capture the remaining vaquitas and place them in a sanctuary – a floating sea pen visible from the San Felipe coast.
I’ve been in San Felipe for two days now – days which have been spent talking with the biologists involved in this truly unique effort, and observing them practice their procedures for capturing this elusive marine mammal. There are experts here from all around the globe with a wide variety of skill sets. Veterinarians, dolphin trainers, behavioral experts, and capture crews who have successfully trapped the closely related harbor porpoise.
These individuals have made great personal sacrifices to come together for a common purpose – and although they recognize that this is a moon-shot – there is a palpable sense of hope that permeates throughout the crew. This is about more than just the vaquita. This is about taking a stand against human-induced extinction. This is about fighting for biodiversity and everything that makes our planet special. Here, in a small Mexican fishing town, these conservationists are digging in and making their last stand. I feel truly honored to be standing with them.
Tags: endangered species, extinction, extinction crisis, Gulf of California, san felipe, Vaquita, vaquita capture, wildlife conservation