It lasted no more than a couple of seconds: Two dark, finned figures simultaneously leaped from the water then disappeared. A mile away, aboard the research vessel Ocean Starr, scientists barely contained their excitement as they peered through their giant “big eye” binoculars.
These were vaquita marina, a species of small porpoise endemic to the upper Gulf of California that is on the brink of extinction. Fewer than 100 are believed alive. The team of expert observers, most of them from the United States and Mexico, recorded the sighting some 25 miles northeast of San Felipe and continued scouring the water’s calm surface for more.
An unprecedented effort this year by Mexico’s federal government aimed at preserving the species has spurred this exhaustive $3-million survey off the Baja California peninsula. On this warm autumn afternoon, the panorama was all sky and water — save for the occasional commercial trawler on the horizon and a rocky islet teeming with birds and sea lions at the heart of the vaquita refuge known as Rocas Consag.
“We are finding what we expected to find,” said Barbara Taylor, a conservation biologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla and the expedition’s U.S. chief scientist. “They are there, but they’re rare.”
The world’s smallest cetacean, vaquitas grow to four or five feet, weigh as much as 120 pounds and are characterized by dark rings around their eyes and dark patches on their lips, earning them the nickname panda of the sea. They live in one place: the rich and turbid waters of Mexico’s upper Gulf of California, and are very hard to detect because they avoid boats, surface only briefly, barely splash and usually travel in groups of one or two.
Yet the species, first identified in the 1950s, has come under an unprecedented international spotlight, a subject of concern for both the U.S. and Mexican governments, and the focus of campaigns by environmental groups including the World Wildlife Fund, the Center for Biological Diversity and Greenpeace.
For the observers on the 171-foot Ocean Starr, every sighting has been the subject of celebration — confirmation that vaquitas still survive.
“Your heart starts beating hard,” said Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, Mexico’s chief scientist on the vaquita expedition and coordinator of research and marine mammal conservation at Mexico’s National Institute for Ecology and Climate Change. “But everybody stays calm and continues doing their work as professionals.”
The vaquitas, which must surface to breathe, for years have become ensnared in gill nets used by fishermen to catch fish and shrimp from small boats, causing them to drown. The threat has been compounded by the illegal fishing, also with gill nets, of another endangered species, the totoaba fish, whose swim bladders are in high demand in China for their perceived medicinal properties.
In recent years, the extinction of another marine mammal, the baiji dolphin, from China’s Yangtze River, has added urgency to calls to save the vaquita. The Mexican government has taken a number of steps, including the establishment of a vaquita refuge in 2005, but the vaquita population continued to fall.
In April, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto took the unprecedented step of declaring a two-year gill net ban in the vaquita habitat in the upper gulf, effectively putting out of commission hundreds of small boats, or pangas, that fish from the coastal towns of San Felipe and the Gulf of Santa Clara. While the ban lasts, nearly 2,700 fishermen and boat owners who made their living in the upper gulf are being paid through a compensation program that is costing Mexico $36 million a year.
Along with the ban, Mexico has deployed its navy to the area, dramatically stepping up enforcement. Areas where fishermen openly flouted fishing regulations have now been cleared of boats.
“The vaquitas have no option, they cannot go anywhere else. The fishermen can look for other options,” said Rojas-Bracho, who is the co-chief scientist of the vaquita survey. “The whole thing is to have a sustainable fishery here, using other gear.”
But in San Felipe, many fishermen are counting the days until they can go back to sea with their gill nets.
Sipping coffee early one morning on San Felipe’s scenic malecon, Alfredo Lucero Rubio, known as El Pio, said he has not seen a vaquita since the 1960s. “It’s an animal that can’t even be eaten,” said Lucero, adding that “the government doesn’t know what it’s doing; the vaquita is going to go extinct anyway.”
Lucero argues that gill nets are not what have caused the vaquitas’ population to plummet and instead blames the dramatically diminished flow from the Colorado River into the upper gulf, which he says has reduced the vaquitas’ food supply. The theory has been espoused by others who oppose the gill net ban, but disavowed by Rojas-Bracho and other scientists who note that all vaquitas seen are fat and healthy and show no signs of insufficient food.
By contrast, some San Felipe fishermen report very recent sightings. “The majority of people don’t want to admit that vaquita still exist,” said Jose Luis Romero, a longtime fisherman nicknamed Chalunga. “They hold the belief that if they deny its existence, then they can go back to gill net fishing.”
Romero is among a small group of fishermen who since 2007 have collaborated closely with researchers and government agencies in the search for alternative fishing gear. They stand prepared to use an experimental vaquita-safe shrimp net but have not been issued permits by the Mexican government.
Unlike their fellow fishermen who continued using gill nets to catch shrimp, they are receiving no compensation, and they say they are in an economic bind. “They take away our opportunity to fish, but they don’t compensate us either,” Romero said. “We don’t understand what the government is doing with us.”
Dibble writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.