On the Verge of Extinction, Mexico Races to Save the Vaquita

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.

Directors of the World Wide Fund for Nature in Mexico Maria Jose Villanueva (left), Jorge Richards and Enrique Sanjurjo speak about the vaquita during a press conference in Mexico City on May 15. (Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images)

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 OK 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.

Crew members of the M/V Sam Simon, from the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, untangle and retrieve a long line net and its hooks, which killed a dolphin. (Carrie Kahn/NPR)

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