Critically Endangered Vaquitas Have a Shot at Avoiding Extinction If Humans Will Stop Killing Them

If conservationists find a way to stop people from killing the critically endangered vaquita, the marine species might be able to bounce back on its own.

That's according to one of the scientists who is working to save the animals, a small group of petite porpoises that live exclusively in the Gulf of California, the strip of water between Baja California and the rest of Mexico. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho is helping to lead the charge to save the vaquita from extinction and works with Mexico's National Commission for Natural Protected Areas, part of its Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources. He's optimistic about their future because he and other experts have seen that the vaquitas are breeding, after spotting a mother with her calf, and a DNA analysis shows they are genetically healthy.

"Vaquitas are a very resourceful animal," Rojas-Bracho told Newsweek. "If we stop killing them, they will come back."

Scientists return a vaquita, which is a critically endangered species, to the water in the Gulf of California during a conservation operation in October 2017. Semarnat/Handout via REUTERS

For now, the situation is quite dire: Illegal fishing and trafficking pose a continued risk to the vaquitas, despite government and military officials trying to crack down on those responsible and prevent any more vaquitas from getting caught up in fishing gear that isn't even meant for them.

"Fishers can get a lot of money for totoaba bladder," Rojas-Bracho said.

He was referring to the body part of that large fish, itself critically endangered, that helps it stay buoyant. It is prized by followers of traditional Asian medicine, who dry it out and use it as a remedy for various ailments. Despite a ban on totoaba fishing and on gillnets, a popular type of net that hangs vertically in the water and is a huge culprit in the bycatch deaths of vaquitas, the various government and conservation agencies trying to save the endangered species are struggling to combat illegal fishing and trade.

In traditional Asian medicine, the swim bladder of the totoaba is prized. But illegal fishing to collect the totoaba in Mexico puts the critically endangered vaquita at risk. ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

Recent estimates have put the vaquita population at fewer than 30 members, making it one of the most endangered species in the world. The roughly 5-foot-long creatures are known as the "panda of the sea" because they look a lot like dolphins but have dark marks around their eyes and mouths.

Simply removing them from the wild and into captivity won't work—the experts have tried. An operation last year called VaquitaCPR was suspended shortly after it began when a captured female vaquita fell ill and died of heart problems, although it remained unclear where in her capture and transportation to a water-based pen that she went into distress.

"There's a learning curve of how to catch them," Rojas-Bracho said of capture programs. But with the vaquitas, "our sample size is too small" to keep going and find the right rhythm. "You have to start working before it gets to this critical situation."

For now, efforts in the almost 300 square miles of the upper gulf where the vaquitas swim include cleaning up gillnets that have been lost or abandoned in the water—known as ghost nets—but still pose a risk to the marine creatures even without fishers directing them. Mexico has also deployed more enforcement agents to catch illegal fishers in the water quickly after they are reported and scientists are using acoustic equipment to detect the vaquitas under the surface and learn more about them, to better protect them. So far, the detections have shown the experts how the little porpoises migrate and move with the currents and how they spend their days.

Authorities and conservationists are trying to save the critically endangered vaquita, which lives exclusively in the upper Gulf of California. HECTOR GUERRERO/AFP/Getty Images

One thing they don't have is a more specific population estimate.

"The goal is not to count right now," Rojas-Bracho said, because protection efforts take precedence. But an accounting of the animals could come at a later time.

As conservationists and authorities work together in a last-ditch effort to save the vaquitas, they could be picking up lessons that will help those fighting to rescue other endangered species around the world, including the many others that die when they are accidentally caught up in fishing gear meant for other species.

"It's not only vaquita," Rojas-Bracho said. "This may happen again in other species."

Although the plight of the vaquita is desperate, he said there is an important message in it: "Not to give up."