As the demand for rare fish bladders continues unabated, the tiny vaquita slides ever closer towards extinction. A new estimate suggests that there may only be 12 of the porpoises left in existence.
Last year it was thought that there were perhaps as many as 30 of the cetaceans surviving in one small area of the Gulf of California. This, however, was most likely the higher end of the estimate. Now, in a conversation with the environmental website Mongabay, one researcher involved with monitoring the illegal trade of the totoaba fish bladder, which is behind the vaquita’s crash in numbers, has given a rather gloomier outlook.
“My current sources confirmed to me that we are now talking about a dozen vaquitas left in the Sea of Cortez,” explained Andrea Crosta of the Elephant Action League, a watchdog group that works along the Gulf of California monitoring the fisheries, to Mongabay. “The scientists are using sonic buoys to count them, through echolocation, and numbers are now really low.”
The vaquita is the world’s smallest – and most endangered – cetacean. The little porpoise is only found at the very top of the Gulf of California, where it spends its time sticking to the shoreline and catching small fish. Back in1997 it is thought that as many as 567 of the animals survived, but by 2017 this number had slumped to just 30.
The cause of the decline is not because the porpoise itself is seen as vulnerable, simply that it just happens to live in the same environment as a fish that is. Illegal fishermen lay gill nets along the shore to catch the totoaba fish, ensnaring and killing the poor vaquita by accident. Used in traditional Chinese medicine, the swim bladder of the totoaba can fetch as much as $20,000 a kilogram on the black market.
A last-ditch attempt to save the vaquita was executed last year, to catch a handful of the porpoises using the help of military trained dolphins and bring them into a captive breeding program. Unfortunately, within a few weeks of starting, the whole effort had to be called off after the death of a breeding age female that was caught. Whether or not conservationists will try again with adapted techniques is still not known, but it might be too late.
“I don’t know about hope,” Crosta said. “I don’t want to sound too pessimistic, but this whole thing has become personal. Even if they kill all the vaquitas, we owe it to them to tell their full story, the truth, and we want to take down those responsible, who are not the fishermen, by the way.”