Whilst studying the threats facing Chinese alligators in 2006 I learned of the imminent extinction of the Baiji- a beautiful river dolphin, a freshwater species 25 million year in the making. A cetacean was about to become extinct in my lifetime! How could this be possible? Humans love dolphins, right? What was the cause? Pollution and bycatch were considered the main culprits. During this time, I was at the initial stages of my career, I knew I wanted to help animals but was unsure of what to do and where to go, my passion led me to teaching. If I could inspire and raise awareness, then maybe I could make a difference.
(The Baiji, was declared extinct by scientists in 2006. Photograph Credit:Riverstatic)
Eleven years on what have we learned? Not much! Heart-breaking news that the Vaquita is on the verge of becoming extinct. The reason? Bycatch! The beautiful Vaquita, another cetacean, is vanishing on our watch. The Vaquita is the world’s smallest porpoise and is a remarkable creature. They live in the Northern Gulf of California and like many other Phocena they usually spend their time alone, unless accompanied by a calf.
It was discovered only in 1958 and just over half a century since its discovery, the Vaquita is disappearing in front of our eyes. Just two days ago, two Vaquita’s were found floating dead in the Gulf of California, they are critically endangered in the wild.
(It’s estimated that there are now fewer than 28 Vaquita left in the wild (1))
With less than 28 individuals remaining in the wild, the situation is critical, this incredible species needs our help now more than ever. Their population is declining because they often become trapped in illegal gillnets which are intended to capture totoaba, a large critically endangered fish which is endemic to the Gulf. The totoaba is trapped for its swim bladder, where driven by demand in China (where they are used in soup and is erroneously thought to have medicinal value) it too, is also heading to extinction. An immediate and total removal of gillnets from the entire of the Vaquita’s range, could save it from extinction.
How can you help?
Here are a few steps you can take to help today:
You can also help by becoming a responsible consumer; learn where your food comes from, respect the environment and become more environmentally aware. Every year over 300,000 cetaceans are killed because of fishing. It is becoming evident that we cannot afford to continue destroying the ecosystems which we rely upon.
Why should we act?
If we lose the Vaquita then it will have a significant ecological impact on the Gulf of California. Whilst the Vaquita only accounts for a small percentage for the diets of sharks in the region, if it disappears it could potentially have negative effects on shark population sizes. It could also lead to the-over population of their prey species including squid and crustaceans.
But surely there is another reason, the Vaquita is among this planets most beautiful and enchanting creatures. A creature which we still know very little about. If we fail to act today, the Vaquita will soon be gone; it will join the Baiji, the Dodo, the Tasmanian Tiger and countless other species, to the dooms of extinction. Are we just willing to sit back and let that happen?
An Article by Stuart Collier and Harry Wright
(1) Based on CIRVA reports from 2014, 2015, and 2016 using data from both vessel surveys and acoustic monitoring to track the population.
Cover Photograph: National Geographic