In 2006, vaquita, a diminutive porpoise making its home in the Upper Gulf of California, inheritedthe dubious title of world's most endangered marine mammal.Nicknamed "panda of the sea” for their small size and beguiling facial markings, vaquitas have been in decline for decades, dying by the hundreds in gillnets intended for commercially valuable fish, as wellas for anendangered fish called totoaba. When international crime cartels discovered a lucrative trade in the swim bladders of totoaba, illegal gillnetting went rampant, and now the lives of the few remaining vaquitas hang in the balance.
Author Brooke Bessesen takes us on a journey to Mexico's Upper Gulf region to uncover the story. She interviewed townspeople, fishermen, scientists, and activists, teasing apart a complex story filled with villains and heroes, a story whose outcome is unclear.When diplomatic and political efforts to save the little porpoise failed, Bessesen followed a team of veterinary experts in a binational effort to capture the last remaining vaquitas and breed them in captivity—the best hope for their survival. In this fast-paced, soul-searing tale, she learned that there are no easy answers when extinction is profitable.
Whether the rescue attempt succeeds or fails, the world must ask itself hard questions. When vaquita and the totoaba are gone, the black market will turn to the next vulnerable species. What will we do then?
Longtime field biologist and research fellow Bessesen presents a passionate if meandering case for saving the world's most critically endangered marine mammal, the vaquita, a five-foot-long porpoise that lives in only one place on earth: the Sea of Cortez, between Baja California and the rest of Mexico. During the 20 months Bessesen researched them, the number of remaining vaquitas dwindled from 60 to possibly 15. The culprit is the gill net, used by fishermen for decades to catch a fish called totoaba, whose swim bladders are highly valued in China for their supposed curative powers. But gill nets catch and kill vaquitas, too. Bessesen chronicles efforts to confiscate gill nets and to count vaquitas, as well as visits with villagers, fishermen, Mexican government officials, and scientists to get their takes on the little porpoises. The situation has set struggling fishermen and environmentalists against each other: the government has announced gill net bans, provided subsidies for fishermen using alternative gear, and created a vaquita refuge, but these measures have been abused or gone unenforced. Poachers, cartels, and corruption abound. A last-ditch effort by scientists to raise vaquitas isn't promising; they're ill-suited to captivity. Even the involvement of UNESCO and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio and a growing media blitz about the vaquitas' plight haven't seen the animals' population rebound. Although Bessesen sometimes refers to events and vaquita numbers confusingly out of sequence, this is a heartfelt and alarming tale.