Lives Cut Short

With fewer than 30 vaquitas left, the loss of a single calf feels like a blow beyond all reckoning

Author Brooke Bessesen spent twenty-two months traveling into Mexico to stitch together the intricate and haunting story behind the world’s most endangered marine mammal — the vaquita. This rare and beautiful porpoise is nearing extinction, lost as collateral damage in the gillnets of an international cartel-driven poaching operation for a fish called totoaba. Now, scientists, conservationists and even Hollywood stars are working to save the vaquita, as the whole world watches. The following is an adapted excerpt from Bessesen’s new book, Vaquita.

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The vaquita is nearing extincion, a victim of illegal totoaba fishing in the Gulf of California. The use of gillnets in the region is taking a steep toll on other species as well, including whales, dolphins, and sea turtles. Photo by Paul Olson / NOAA.

A baby vaquita had washed up on the beach twenty miles south of San Felipe.

She was not just a baby. She was a premie, with her umbilical cord still dangling. Lacking any marks on her fragile skin, she had presumably been expelled while her mother flailed to death in a gillnet.

I heard the news from Armando. Having just arrived at the INECC (Mexico’s National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change) condo for another visit, I was helping him prepare a few c-pods while Gustavo was out running errands with the new field coordinator. As I dropped batteries into the long tubes, Armando asked if I’d heard about the baby and showed me a photo on his computer. My heart pitched into my throat.

The tiny, black form looked deflated, pressed almost flat against the sand, as if the gravity of existence were simply too much to bear. The photo was taken on March 12, 2017, practically a year to the day of my first visit and those gruesome images of young Ps2.

I would later read a Tech Times article that said, “Mexico’s minister for agriculture, Jose Calzada, asserted that the government is doing everything to protect the vaquita. He claimed an ‘ambitious program’ is in the pipeline to salvage them.” The article explained that “the baby vaquita’s corpse would be sent for examination at a lab in San Francisco to test for toxic substances and pathogens.”

Again with the red tide.

I thought back to scientist Omar Vidal’s report of a premature fetus among the dead he examined in 1995. Through the years, how many infants have expired before they could make a single sonar click or take their first sip of milk? Lives cut short. The forfeiture of so much potential.

Here’s how it should have gone. We can calculate that the mother of the neonate became pregnant in the late spring of 2016. Carrying her developing fetus for approximately eleven months, two months longer than a human child, she would have given birth to her daughter sometime in late March 2017. That little girl would have arrived into the watery world looking something like a shiny gray watermelon. She would then have nursed for six to twelve months, drinking nutrient-rich milk from the mammary slits on her mother’s abdomen. In time, she would have grown into a stout, active juvenile and then a sleek, healthy subadult. She would not have reached sexual maturity until after her third or possibly up to her sixth birthday; thereafter, she would have become a mother herself, perhaps delivering a new son or daughter every other year through her adult life. With any luck, she might have reached a life span of more than twenty years before passing away of natural causes, leaving a vibrant lineage of offspring and great-offspring.

Instead, she was dead before her first breath.

It is to such devastating consequence that vaquitas generally give birth between February and April, a period that coincides with the high season for totoaba. Now, with so few individuals left, the loss of this single unborn calf — the slaughtered promise of her life — seemed a blow beyond all reckoning. Yet I knew that anyone focused on the big picture of bycatch would see the premie as mere statistic.

Spring poaching was rampant, and the toll to marine life was staggering. Just since the New Year, I was told that ten dead whales, countless dolphins, and one sea turtle had washed up along the shores near San Felipe. It is a disturbing reminder that vaquita is not the only species to be concerned about.

Some of the victims possessed obvious signs of entanglement. One beached whale carcass seen by a local man named Dale Vinnedge “had a totoaba net in the back of its mouth and wrapped around its body.” Another, a legally protected Bryde’s whale found floating in the Upper Gulf of California by Sea Shepherd, was bound in a deadly tangle of knots that spoke of a desperate struggle. The great animal had writhed and twisted, gasping for air before the trussing stole its last breath.

On February 11, 2017, alone, Sea Shepherd added fourteen long-beaked common dolphins to the death toll. The animals were reported by the organization to be afloat in Alto Golfo, some “with net marks on their bodies.” (Poignantly, February 14 is World Love for Dolphins Day.)

Now looking at the photo of the premie on Armando’s computer, I felt despair sweeping into my heart. It had been a year since my first visit to San Felipe, and it seemed that nothing had been fixed. Despite all the resources brought to bear, almost half the remaining vaquitas had been killed, driving the population from sixty to thirty.

Hope and reality can be tricky allies.

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