The vaquita is not hunted. Nor is its habitat disappearing or degraded. Nicknamed “panda of the sea,” this diminutive porpoise is even protected by law. So why is the species on the brink of extinction, with fewer than twenty animals remaining? Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez unravels the haunting story of the world’s most endangered marine mammal and asks, is there time to save the vaquita? And why does it matter? Author Brooke Bessesen brings readers to Mexico’s Upper Gulf region, the only place the porpoise is found, to untangle the intricate controversies behind its precipitous decline. The result is a soul-searing story that gives readers an in-depth look at a disappearing species and highlights the brave efforts of those fighting to bring vaquitas back from the brink. We sat down with Bessesen to talk about vaquita, international cartels, and an unlikely fish called the totoaba. Have more questions for Bessesen? Share them in the comments below.
The vaquita is one of the most endangered animals on the planet. How many vaquitas are left? Did the possibility of their extinction impact how you wrote and thought about the book?
The most recent official population estimate reports less than 30 vaquitas. But that was from 2016; with a current rate of decline upwards of 50% there are now far fewer. It has been agonizing to know I might be documenting the extinction of a species, but at this terrible moment in history we cannot turn away. If vaquita does disappear, the whole world needs to be watching. We must all force ourselves to witness the truth of our current circumstances and feel some loss. Perhaps when our hearts are broken will we make haste for change.
How did you first become interested in the story of vaquita?
I first learned about vaquita in 2008 while visiting a research station in Rocky Point, Mexico. At that time the population estimate was 245—down from 600 in 1997. Two years later, at a cetacean conference, I was encouraged to write about vaquita, but I was immersed in field studies in Costa Rica and working on another book. When I finally started researching the topic in 2016, I was shocked to discover the level of crisis. Going into Mexico, I had no idea how harrowing this story would be.
Vaquita explores the possibility of ex situ and in situ conservation. What is the difference between these approaches? Is breeding vaquitas in captivity an option?
Ex situ means “off site.” It is a conservation strategy that places at-risk species in captivity. Last fall an ex situ vaquita recovery effort was undertaken. Two vaquitas were captured but both suffered acute stress and one died of cardiac arrest. With so few vaquitas left, ex situ is no longer a viable option. In situ, “on-site” conservation must now be successful for the species to survive.
You traveled to Mexico and interviewed fishermen, scientists, townspeople, and more for the book. Does a particular story or conversation stand out to you?
One conversation that still sticks with me took place on a dusty street corner in San Felipe with one of the law-abiding fishermen trying to help vaquita. He is part of the team that’s pulling illegal gillnets out of the water and he described an experience of being accosted by masked poachers. It really scared him. When I told him I admired his courage, he smirked and replied, “I just hope I don’t end up like a Bible character that is killed for doing what’s right.”
The black market for totoaba has put vaquitas in peril of extinction. Totoaba are also critically endangered. Are there conservation efforts aimed directly at totoaba? What lessons can conservationists learn from the connection of these species?
There is a totoaba hatchery in Ensenada that has been able to raise and then release hundreds of thousands of totoaba back into the Upper Gulf. So although the totoaba is still listed as critically endangered, its numbers are not nearly as low as vaquita. One lesson may be that while both of these animals—one fish, one mammal—are victims of the same gillnets, their recovery plans must take two different approaches. And there’s a lot more urgency with vaquita.
If the vaquita and totoaba go extinct, it doesn’t sound like that’s the end of the story. Criminal cartels will move on to the next available marine species to exploit. Is there any hope in stemming the tide? Are there efforts to discourage the use of animal parts in traditional Chinese medicine?
I think in the case of totoaba, drug cartels simply acted as opportunists. That said, the international black market for endangered wildlife parts is a multi-billion-dollar industry. Programs that strive to discourage sales in China are essential to elicit cultural shifts; however, the enforcement of national regulations in related countries can have a more immediate effect. Unfortunately, corruption and consumerism too often drive politics. It’s pretty hard to point fingers when totoaba is trafficked through the United States and the Trump administration just lifted the ban on elephant tusks.
In the book you write that “The situation is bleak, but we cannot lose hope. Should apathy prevail, every step toward positive change will falter.” What do you mean by that? Why is it important to tell the story of vaquita and other endangered species?
Humans are fueled by hope. In our darkest moments, it is the belief that things can be better that gets us off the floor and into action. Of course, having hope does not require sugarcoating reality. People don’t want emotional protection. They want the truth. And the truth is that every species extinction portends our own eventual demise. Hope lies our power to change course.
Did you find anything in the course of researching and writing this book that surprised you?
Almost everything surprised me! This book was a journey of unexpected back alleys, mirrored mazes, and stumbles down rabbit holes. Through it all, I came to realize that getting gillnets out of the Upper Gulf—the one and only thing needed to save vaquita—is simultaneously the most-simple and the most-impossible task. Anyone who loves puzzles will appreciate the conundrum.
What do you hope readers will take away from Vaquita?
Because I believe a good book tells a small story that poignantly speaks to a larger one, I hope to hook readers into pondering not only the potential loss of vaquita, but also today’s broader ecological crisis, which involves dozens of endangered species around the globe. I cannot force readers to action. But if I can get them to stop, to look—to really look at this crisis—if I can plant the seed of contemplation, perhaps something good will grow.