How Now, Little Cow?

The vaquita, the world's smallest porpoise, lives only in the northern Gulf of California. With just 200 individuals remaining, can the species survive?

Vaquita Fin, which is pretty much as good as most people get to photographing one

A photographer in search of a live vaquita is not likely to get a better portrait of the small, rare, and exceedingly shy animal.

G.K. Silber and M.W. Newcomber
Vaquita conservation, of course, raises thorny ethical and sociological issues. The people who live along the desert shores eke out a tenuous living by fishing in the same waters as the vaquita. They simply want to keep their families fed and improve their lot. The tragedy is that their poverty and their struggles will continue long after the last vaquita loses its own final struggle in a ball of monofilament net.

It is all too easy to imagine the end of the vaquita: An exasperated fisherman wrestles with an entangled carcass under the blazing Mexican sun. He finally extricates it from the net and dumps it unceremoniously over the side of his panga—his small, open fishing boat. As the last vaquita sinks out of sight, the last human being ever to see one goes back to pulling his net.

We need to take care of this fisherman if we want to take care of the vaquita.

As in the baiji’s case, the future of the vaquita is no longer a scientific issue. The time for surveys is over. The trend is clear, the threats are known, and the answer is simple: the nets must come out of the water. A recent socioeconomic survey of the northern gulf suggested that for about $25 million, all vaquita bycatch could be eliminated. The money would be directed toward the 3,000 or so fishermen who make their living putting nets into those waters, either to buy out their fishing gear and help them get into another line of work, or to teach them sustainable fishing practices that don’t threaten the vaquita. Economists from the U.S. and Mexico are now working to design such a program, but the money remains a stumbling block.

Maybe what the vaquita needs is a corporate sponsor. For the price of a couple of minutes of ad time during the Super Bowl, an underwriter could buy a future for the species. Corporate donations do not come free, of course—vaquitas might have to carry painted logos on their sides, like NASCAR race cars. Perhaps the species could be renamed, something like “The Home Depot ’You can do it, we can help’ porpoise.” Increasingly, people seem to be losing the ability to recognize the intrinsic value of Earth’s wildlife; species will have to earn their way to justify their survival, a sad but honest appraisal of a world losing contact with its natural heritage and hewing only to market forces.

Just so, if this little porpoise goes extinct, many people will shrug off its passing as the disappearance of an obscure species from an out-of-the-way corner of the globe: “So what?” For others, however, the loss of any biological diversity on our planet is of grievous concern, particularly when what is lost is a relatively large, warm-blooded creature like the vaquita.

The vaquita has no value as a commodity: It is too shy and small ever to support an ecotourism venture. It is not a vital link in the marine food chain. There is no cure for any human disease lurking in its liver proteins. It is just a lowly beast trying to make its way, like the rest of us. Its loss would barely be noticed.

Yet it was part of the magnificent diversity of life on Earth that our generation inherited, and it is rapidly becoming part of the dwindling legacy we are leaving behind. We have a year or two now to decide whether we are going to let this species live, or whether, like the baiji, we vote it off the island and wipe that little black smile off the face of the Earth forever.

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