A tiny porpoise called the vaquita has polarized a Mexican fishing town. The species is fighting for its life.
The most endangered marine mammal on Earth, a small porpoise called the vaquita, lives just off the coast of San Felipe, a small Mexican fishing town in Baja California. Thousands of these animals, which have distinctive black markings around their lips and eyes, once lived in the warm Gulf of California. But by the summer of 2018, scientists estimated that fewer than 19 remained in the entire world, according to the most recent published estimates.
One morning in November, I set out to sea in a small boat near San Felipe with three members of a community that conservationists have accused of killing vaquitas: shrimp fishermen. Dressed in white rubber boots and colorful waders, the men had agreed to show me what it’s like to fish using gillnets, a kind of net that often unintentionally catches marine animals other than shrimp.
The captain, a short man in his 60s with a thick gray mustache, motored us out as the sun was rising. Big-bellied pelicans cruised beside us. I spent the next 10 hours watching the crew fish with long walls of net that hang from buoys like sheets in the ocean. Gillnets are designed to trap marine creatures that swim or drift into them, especially if their bodies are roughly the same width as the openings in the net — in this case, about the size of a credit card.
That morning, the fishermen told me that in their experience, shrimp gillnets don’t ensnare vaquitas. The nets break easily, one of them said, while ripping through the thin strands of green nylon with his hand. If a vaquita gets stuck, it can tear its way out, he added. (The man asked me not to share his name so he could speak freely without fear of reprisal from other fishers or conservationists.)
But some research, carried out by US and Mexican institutions, shows that shrimp gillnets are among the kinds of gillnets that imperil vaquitas. The porpoises, which are about half the size of a bottlenose dolphin, get tangled in the mesh and eventually drown — a cruel irony for an animal that lives underwater.
The fishermen’s nets didn’t snag any vaquitas, though they did bring in plenty of other species they didn’t mean to catch: small guitarfish, scorpionfish, dozens of crabs, and a stingray the size of a pillow. The ray was alive when the men tossed it back to sea, though it had several cuts on the tips of its fins. The fishermen caught hundreds of shrimp, too, some of which we ate after boiling them in seawater using a small propane stove they brought on board. (They were delicious.)
To conservationists, the way to save the vaquitas is simple: eliminate the use of gillnets like these. But if there’s one lesson that vaquitas can teach us, it’s that transforming a way of life of even a small community isn’t simple at all.
Scientists, environmentalists, and government officials eager to save the vaquita have tried many times to rid the Upper Gulf of gillnets, and have even banned them outright in some areas. Not only have those efforts failed, they’ve also angered local fishers, who make up a large portion of San Felipe’s 17,000 or so residents. Tensions rose to a boiling point early this year after a ship operated by the environmental organization Sea Shepherd Conservation Society tried to remove a fishing boat’s gillnet, provoking a conflict. The Sea Shepherd ship and a fishing boat collided, resulting in the death of a fisherman.
The tension was still palpable in November when another skiff approached our boat. One of the fishermen looked at me and photographer Luis Antonio Rojas and yelled from the other boat: “Throw them overboard. They want to stop us from fishing.”
I was clearly an outsider — was it the blotches of sunscreen? — and local fishers often say that outsiders want to interfere with a whole community’s livelihood to try to save the few vaquitas that are left. Their frustration probably isn’t helped by the fact that the vaquita may be too far gone to come back from the brink of extinction now.
“We fishermen are also going extinct,” said Mario Humberto Izquierdo Hernandez, a fisherman in his late 60s whom I met at the port in San Felipe. He’s been fishing his whole life and has never seen a vaquita.
Talking to the fishermen, I couldn’t help but feel that no one wins in this conflict between fishing and conservation: It pits two groups who both love the ocean against each other. And how is anyone supposed to save a local species without the support of the local community?
But there’s something that could be more devastating than the extinction of the vaquita: the risk that thousands of other threatened species worldwide that share habitat with people will die off in the midst of these same kinds of conflicts. Ultimately, that’s what brought me here, to figure out what we can learn — and what we can even gain — when we lose the vaquita.
In mid-October, a team of scientists from Mexico and the US piled onto two large ships off the coast of Baja California, near San Felipe, and motored out to sea. Their goal was to survey the last remaining vaquitas. The boats weaved through a constellation of fishing skiffs to a nearby patch of ocean not far from land.
Each ship carried a handful of skilled wildlife spotters, who would take one-hour turns scanning the water. From sunrise to sunset, pairs of spotters peered out to sea with plus-size mounted binoculars called “big eyes.” A recorder would stand right behind them, ready to carefully jot down any sightings of the porpoise.
Even with the right equipment, these animals are hard to spot. Vaquitas are tiny — about five feet long — and shy compared to other marine animals. They don’t like ships, and tend to pop up once and then disappear. Making it harder, the Upper Gulf can be choppy and murky, not a clear Caribbean blue. Their small fins blend in and you often can’t see more than a few feet or so below the surface.
Most challenging of all is that vaquitas are so incredibly rare. Their numbers have declined by 99 percent in the past decade, research shows. During the last major survey, in 2019, researchers saw an estimated 10 animals (though that number doesn’t represent the entire population, because the scientists searched a limited area). That may be why half a dozen or so older fishermen told me that they have never once seen a vaquita, even though they’ve spent most of their lives on the water in the porpoise’s habitat.
Fishing is the main reason for this sharp decline. But there’s one catch in particular that’s especially problematic: the totoaba, a greenish-gray drum fish.
Like the vaquita, the fish is endemic to the gulf and threatened with extinction. One of its organs known as the swim bladder — part of the body that helps it control buoyancy — is valuable on the black market. Poachers catch the fish in gillnets and remove their swim bladders, which Mexican cartels smuggle into China. Some people consider totoaba swim bladder a delicacy with medicinal properties, and just a gram of it can go for up to $46 US, according to a 2018 report. (For reference, the price of gold is currently around $57 per gram.)
Why does this matter for vaquitas? Fishers catch totoaba using gillnets made with thick nylon strands that have particularly large openings (the fish can grow to more than six feet long). When vaquitas get stuck, it’s hard for them to escape. Though most kinds of gillnets can ensnare vaquitas, totoaba nets pose the greatest threat to the porpoise, scientists say.
Just after the vaquita survey concluded, I drove to a port on the southern edge of San Felipe to meet a scientist who helped lead it, Barbara Taylor. I walked down a long, narrow ramp onto a dock where the air smelled especially fishy. Before me was one of the survey ships, the Narval, a large gray vessel with a vaquita model on its deck.
Taylor, a marine scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), met me on the ship’s upper deck, wearing a vaquita bracelet, vaquita earrings, and a shirt that said: “May the vaquita always swim here!”
Over the shrill calls of seagulls, I asked Taylor the big question: Had they found any?
“It’s lonely out there,” said Taylor, 67, who’s been studying vaquitas since the ’90s and has participated in seven other similar surveys. “It’s one of those things that those of us who work on the vaquita lose sleep about,” she added. “Are we going to come out here and see none?”
Thankfully, not this time. There were eight vaquita sightings across the two ships, and each sighting typically includes one to three animals, according to Jonathan White, an author who was on the ship and helped fund the expedition. Those sightings also included calves, said White, who reviewed unpublished findings of the survey. White stressed that survey estimates don’t represent the total number of vaquitas in the Gulf, and are only an estimate of how many individuals the scientists saw during the survey.
The first sighting on the Narval was close to sunset on the first day of the trip, said Ernesto Vázquez Morquecho, one of the official spotters. He saw the animal’s fin and back breach the surface — “just enough to describe it as a vaquita,” he told me that morning. “It was really, really hopeful.”
It’s hard to imagine that spotting perhaps a dozen individuals of any species is hopeful. In fact, many scientists would likely consider a population of that size “functionally extinct,” meaning the animal is no longer fulfilling a function in the ecosystem — in this case, controlling the populations of small fish and other critters vaquitas prey on. But for Morquecho, Taylor, and the other scientists, it’s still a good sign — and useful for conservation.
“It’s important to know that the vaquitas are still out there and that it is worth trying to give those last individuals a break,” Taylor said. The other good news, she added, is that vaquitas appear to be reproducing as fast as they can. “You shouldn’t write them off,” she said. Sometimes, against the odds, nature can recover when it’s given a chance.
San Felipe is a desert town about two and a half hours south of the US border, located on a stretch of the Baja coast where dust devils rise from miles of silty sand. Many cultures mesh and collide here: You can see retirees from Ohio eating dinner next to marine biologists not far from a strip club, while a few hundred feet away, fishermen haul up their catch from the beach. At least on the surface, San Felipe is not a wealthy town; I saw no mansions or flashy cars.
A loose coalition of scientists, local and global conservation groups, Mexican officials, and even a celebrity or two has been trying to give vaquitas a chance for decades now. The Mexican government has enacted various bans on gillnet fishing in large parts of the Upper Gulf. It also established a handful of protected areas, including the Zero Tolerance Area, an 87-square-mile zone about 30 minutes off the coast of San Felipe where fishing is technically prohibited altogether.
But this name is a misnomer since local fishers don’t usually follow these rules — in part because of a lack of enforcement. While only some fishers catch totoaba, nearly all of them use gillnets and fish in the Zero Tolerance Area. During the surveys in 2019 and this year, Taylor saw “no evidence of enforcement,” she told me. In fact, she said, the survey team had trouble even looking for vaquitas in the Zero Tolerance Area because there were so many fishing skiffs. (Mexican government officials did not respond to a request for comment.)
Most scientists and fishers I spoke to, and even some of the very people tasked with enforcing the law, agreed that there’s barely any enforcement. Several marines stationed aboard a naval ship near the Narval told me they patrol the Zero Tolerance Area every day, but it’s hard to control fishing because there are so many boats coming in and out. (The officers spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak to the press.) They also acknowledged that fishers face pressure to earn money for their families.
American conservation groups, working alongside the Mexican government, have tried more drastic measures to save vaquitas. In the fall of 2017, a program called VaquitaCPR, largely staffed by US scientists, captured two vaquitas that they had planned to take into human care until gillnets could be removed from their habitat. The first animal, a young female, showed signs of extreme stress after it was captured. Fearing the worst, the scientists released it back into the ocean. It disappeared. The second, an adult female, was similarly distressed and had a heart attack when the team released it into the water. It died shortly after. Unlike some other rare species like the tiger or red panda, vaquitas have not survived in captivity.
Meanwhile, Sea Shepherd — which was involved in the survey — began sending out a ship to cut and remove fishers’ illegal gillnets, also with the support of the Mexican government. In 2019, a National Geographic documentary produced in part by Leonardo DiCaprio, Sea of Shadows, featured the organization. Following the deadly collision this year, Sea Shepherd claimed that fishers attacked its ship before ramming into it. The family of the deceased fisherman claimed that Sea Shepherd ran into his skiff, according to BBC News.
Captain Peter Hammarstedt, Sea Shepherd’s director of campaigns, told Vox that the organization has for years “supported local fishing communities and the Mexican government to remove illegal fishing gear” from a protected area called the Vaquita Refuge. “Without these net removal operations, the vaquita would likely already be extinct,” Hammarstedt said. National Geographic did not respond to a request for comment.
An us-versus-them mentality now hangs over the two camps, said Valeria Towns, a former government official in Mexico’s environmental ministry and the program coordinator at Museo de la Ballena, a Mexican environmental organization. (The organization owns the Narval ship, which also removes illegal gillnets in vaquita habitat, she said.) Documentaries like Sea of Shadows can make things worse, Towns said, because they make fishermen look like villains. “It polarized the complex social issue in the area,” she said of the documentary. The problem is that now fishers in San Felipe, she added, “feel like the vaquita is their worst enemy.”
After meeting Taylor on the Narval, I drove south down the coast to a beach about 45 minutes from San Felipe. I was there to witness a different approach to vaquita conservation — fishing with a sustainable net that catches shrimp without killing porpoises.
Under an awning a few hundred feet from the ocean, I met a fisherman who builds eco-friendly nets. He’s a member of a local coalition of sustainable fishers, called Pesca ABC, but he fishes outside of town because he’s concerned about conflicts with other San Felipe fishers. He also asked me not to share his name.
“Ninety-eight percent of fishermen don’t know how to use these different nets,” the fisherman, a middle-aged man wearing a loose polo shirt, told me. If you don’t have the proper training to use them, they capture less, he adds. “That’s why they don’t like them,” he said. “That’s why they think the other nets are better.”
We sat on stools near the beach as the light faded, and he used his hands to demonstrate how the net works. Unlike gillnets, which hang in the water largely unattended, this net drags behind a boat, said the man, who’s been fishing for almost 40 years. The eco-friendly part is a metal grate inside the net, called an excluder. When large animals enter, they run into the grate and exit through a hole nearby, whereas the shrimp pass through and get caught. “There’s no bycatch,” he said, meaning that fishers using these nets rarely catch other species by mistake. (Some fishers who use gillnets dispute that claim.)
The problem is that the fishing community, on the whole, believes these nets capture less, according to Daniel Arellano Millán, Pesca ABC’s field coordinator in San Felipe, who joined us on the beach. Pesca ABC is trying to collect data that shows eco-friendly nets can be profitable, Arellano Millán said.
As we were finishing up our conversation, another fisherman approached in the darkness, barefoot, carrying a white bucket splashed with brown mud. He sat beside me and shined a flashlight inside. A large triggerfish lay on a pile of squirming tentacles. Octopuses. “Should I put one on your back?” the man said, laughing, as he pulled them out of the bucket to count.
The ocean here is full of life, from sea turtles to dolphins to these octopuses. That’s what draws fishers here in the first place, and it’s what conservationists want to protect. Both of these communities care about this stretch of coastline because of its staggering abundance — but they have very different visions for what should be done with it.
Fishers have more interest than anyone in saving the vaquita, according to Lorenzo García Carrillo, who heads up the largest federation of fishers in San Felipe. I met García Carrillo, 48, at his office, a bright yellow building near the main beach in town. “We live from the resources in the sea,” he said.
While scientists come to San Felipe with a salary from organizations and governments, he said, fishers here get their salary from selling seafood. He estimates they make anywhere from $23,000 to $47,000 a year, on average. “This is a fisherman’s town,” and there aren’t many other industries, added Izquierdo Hernandez, the fisherman I met at the port. A healthy sea is good for vaquitas, but it’s also good for those whose livelihoods depend on it.
Fishers have another reason to care: “If the vaquita goes extinct, there’s going to be punishment,” said García Carrillo, who worries that the government or conservation organizations may take action against fishers. “It would be catastrophic.”
So why do fishers continue to use gillnets? García Carrillo claims that sustainable nets like the one we saw capture far fewer shrimp — not even enough to recoup the cost of gasoline. Like the shrimp fishermen who took me out to sea, he also doesn’t believe that gillnets actually kill vaquitas. Scientists strongly disagree with that claim. “The claim that vaquitas don’t die in those nets is known to be false,” Taylor, the NOAA scientist, said of shrimp gillnets.
A number of existing solutions might help vaquitas, from sustainable nets to steering fishing boats clear of the Zero Tolerance Area. The challenge is that when scientists push for these changes, they don’t get through to most fishers. Part of the barrier is surely cost — gillnets require less gasoline to operate than sustainable nets and they can capture hundreds of pounds of shrimp per day. But it’s clear that politics and culture play a role, too.
The scientists I spoke to acknowledged that gillnetting is a way of life for much of San Felipe’s fishing community. There’s a culture of competition that rewards catching more fish, and even fishing the endangered totoaba — becoming what’s known locally as a totoabero — looks appealing if it comes with a hefty paycheck, Towns, the former government official, said.
There’s also not much of an incentive to catch fish sustainably. I noticed that there’s no market for vaquita-friendly shrimp, for example, and there’s no effective regulation of gillnets. So fishers are actually making “the economically sane choice” by continuing to use them, Taylor said.
“As long as I’ve been here, there really has never been any rewards for the people who do it right and lots of rewards for people who do it wrong,” Taylor continued. “I don’t blame them for not having faith that that’s going to change.”
On my last day in San Felipe, I hired a fisherman to take me out to the Zero Tolerance Area. I wanted to test my luck with vaquita spotting. Have you ever looked for a critically endangered species? It’s not easy or particularly fun. Staring out at the sea, I saw about 10 fishing boats, plenty of pelicans, and an empty Doritos bag. No porpoises.
I felt a sense of loss as my mind wandered. We’re watching an extinction happen in slow motion, and time, money, laws, and research haven’t been enough to stop it. Across the spectrum of opinion — which includes the conservationists, the fishers, and those in both camps — most people are unhappy with the process.
While some fishers, especially those that regularly catch totoaba, have profited handsomely, the majority of people here fish to get by. They say that all the efforts to save the vaquita have only made their lives harder — the San Felipe fishing community left as the bycatch of the net of restrictions conservationists have advocated for.
Conservationists around the world can learn lessons from efforts to save vaquitas, Towns told me. If the vaquita goes extinct, she said, “we should write a book about all the things you shouldn’t do if you want to preserve a species.”
Over the past three decades, much of the money spent on vaquita conservation — tens of millions of dollars — has gone toward valuable science-based efforts like surveys. But ultimately, the vaquita faces a problem rooted in complex social dynamics. “Too many scientists are influencing the policies,” Towns said. To solve the problem from the root, she said, local people must be involved in managing their own resources.
Taylor, for her part, wishes there was more of an effort, early on, to develop an “ethic for sustainability” among the fishing community. “I think that the conservation world right now is really seeing how important it is to get the communities involved at a very early stage,” she said. If she could turn back the clock, she would have also encouraged scientists to capture vaquitas when there were more of them — and thus more room for error. Captive vaquitas could have preserved a reservoir of healthy animals that could have been reintroduced later on.
“You have to fight for the best and prepare for the worst,” she said. “We did not prepare for the worst.”
On the day that the shrimp fishermen took me out on the ocean, I saw a lot of life and death. A dolphin surfaced about 100 feet from the boat, and pelicans fought with each other over bycatch. The fishermen removed dying fish and shrimp from the net; crabs wielded their pincers in self-defense as they tried to scurry away. I felt amazement and sadness at the same time. I understood that I could mourn the same creatures that inspire joy and wonder and keep a community alive. It’s that joy that reminds us of what’s worth saving.
This story is part of Down to Earth, a Vox reporting project on the science, politics, and economics of the biodiversity crisis.
Luis Antonio Rojas contributed reporting.