With strong feelings and a world of facts, a naturalist and wildlife researcher tells of the fight to save one critically endangered marine mammal.
The vaquita (“little cow” in Spanish), or Phocoena sinus, is the smallest of all the porpoises, and it is found only in a small region in the northern part of the Sea of Cortez, between Baja California and the Mexican state of Sonora. Once abundant, vaquitas are now rarely seen, leading some to claim that the species may already be extinct. Bessesen (Arizona Highways Wildlife Guide: 125 of Arizona’s Native Species, 2016, etc.) explores the factors behind the vanishing of vaquitas: One of the primary problems are the gill nets that fishermen use to catch totoaba, a fish whose swim bladder brings thousands of dollars in China for its supposed therapeutic properties. Vaquitas scooped up in the gill nets die. The author alleges that Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, could have acted to make gill nets illegal but did only enough to appear preservation-minded. “With China hemorrhaging money and with the Mexican cartels in the driver’s seat,” she writes, “I just can’t imagine that there is a chance for sustainability. Like elephant tusks, the fewer that remain, the greater the value.” Nevertheless, a lot of people are trying. Besides the villains—cartels, poachers, and the distributors and consumers of totoaba swim bladders—Bessesen’s account is filled with dozens of scientists, conservationists, concerned fishermen, and supporters fighting to save a disappearing species. Especially gripping are the author’s tales of capturing vaquitas and attempting to raise them in protective custody. Unfortunately, all attempts failed. One of the take-home messages here is that conservation is complicated, requiring an understanding of history, related species, and the intricacies of ecosystems. Another is that there are important lessons to be learned from the vaquita story, and we all must do better to protect the biodiversity of our planet.
A well-told and moving tale of environmentalism and conservation.