Vaquita isn’t a name many people will be familiar with, although it is the world’s most endangered cetacean. The endemic species, Phocoena sinus, resides in the northwest section of the Gulf of California.
Ever since the Baiji, or Yangtze River Dolphin went extinct in 2006, the vaquita took its place at the top of the critically endangered list. According to some sources, in 2017 there were less than 30 individuals left in the wild. What is more worrying is the estimate that only 12 individuals now remain. With a low fecundity (they produce one off-spring every two years), their future looks bleak.
But what is the reason for this species’ decline? P. sinus’ home range includes areas in which there are high levels of fishing with gill nets. These are nets which are designed to catch everything, if a fish swims into the mesh it becomes caught by its gills and cannot escape. The gillnets aren’t set to catch the cetacean. They are set to catch totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi); they are highly sought after for traditional Chinese medicine, or more specifically, their swim bladder is. Even though the trade in totoaba swim bladders is illegal, a large enough organ can receive a very high price, and the black-market industry for them is now a multi-billion-dollar enterprise.
Although there was a gillnet ban across the Gulf of California between 2015-2017, there was no enforcement by the Mexican government. As such, many fishermen still use these nets to hunt totoaba un-der the cover of darkness. The Chinese government cannot go without blame either; they have done nothing to halt the trade in their own borders. This practice is leading to the deaths of many vaquita, who tragically can become entangled in the nets and drown. With so few individuals left, it is possible that the vaquita will go extinct in the next few years, unless something drastic is done. This seems unlikely as the swim bladder market is just too lucrative.
Sadly, this is another example of the unethical nature of many economic practices. For example, the ivory trade makes poachers a lot of money, even though it is both illegal and immoral.
The same can be said for the palm oil trade. Many will be aware that recently, Iceland’s Christmas advert was banned from public television due to its “political nature”, though that hasn’t stopped it going viral. It highlights how the palm oil industry is reducing the habitat of the orangutang, threatening this species with extinction. Palm oil isn’t illegal, it is just highly disreputable.
It becomes clear that too many people are motivated by financial gain and do not look at the wider implications of their actions. This leads to practices which damage ecosystems and species. Unless there is a change of attitude or an incentive to partake in a different, less destructive industry, then in our lifetimes we could say goodbye to many critically endangered species.
In terms of the marine world, less destructive methods of fishing are a must. Gill nets and trawling destroy populations and habitats
at an unprecedented rate. If ecosystems aren’t allowed to recover, then they will disappear completely. The irony in this is that the fishing industry needs these environments to continue. If they keep going the way they are, they will destroy their own
source of income. This has happened in the past and it could easily happen again. It may be too late to save the vaquita from extinction, but that doesn’t mean we should give up. There are countless others that need protecting from us.