So… here I am, on the edge of the Sea of Cortez. And that torta was delicious.
It’s fascinating how such simple statements of obvious fact can also resound as profound realization. I repeated them again in my tired mind, like a mantra.
around 60 vaquitas remain in the entire world
I leaned back in the flimsy plastic chair and sluggishly stretched my arms over my head. The nebulous heaviness that had accumulated in my back during our long car journey finally began to dissipate. I had driven from San Diego, picked up my trusty field assistants Areli and Vero in Mexicali, and cruised south and east to this little wisp of a seaside town – El Golfo de Santa Clara.
This was my first time here. We were greeted by the soothing sigh of perkily turquoise water outside our hotel. But we didn’t have time to let this tranquility wash over us – we’d gotten straight to work orienting ourselves and introducing ourselves to key contacts in the community.
Our final appointment of the afternoon ended as a dense and dark rainstorm arrived, and we sprinted with childlike glee along the streets of sand to the hotel. The abrupt change in weather helped snap me out of work mode. I finally had space in my mind to think about other matters, such as the distinct lack of food in my stomach.
Based on nothing much besides a gut feeling*, we chose one little establishment for our dinner. A jocular older man greeted us and prepared a torta for my first full meal of the day. I pretty much inhaled it. While Areli and Vero finished their meals at a more responsible rate, I stared off and let my mind relax against the backdrop of the now-calmed and distant clouds silhouetted against a saturated teal sky. I felt pretty damned content.
The Sea of Cortez has this sleepy, enchanting mystique. The name itself has a sort of romantic ring to it. The northernmost corner, the Upper Gulf of California, is the only home of the most endangered marine mammal in the world, a cute but hapless little porpoise called the vaquita. I’d been fascinated with this little animal, this animalito, for many years. As a young ecology student in college, I’d found that I have a soft spot for very endangered marine mammals. It sparked my interest in studying the interface between conservation and human livelihoods, because the main threat to the vaquita has, for decades, been the accidental capture or “bycatch” in gillnets used in local small-scale fisheries. The livelihoods of local people depend very directly on these fisheries. This makes for a tricky situation where conservation could well pose a threat to human well-being and human rights.
The particular threats to the vaquita have been the gillnets for shrimp and for a very delicious fish called the totoaba, the swim bladder (buche) of which is highly prized in Chinese markets. This swim bladder is driving a thriving black market, run by well-connected cartels. In a last-ditch effort to save the vaquita, conservation groups, researchers, and the Mexican government designed and implemented a two-year ban on most gillnet fishing, which started last year; fishing for corvina during the season from February to April was allowed to proceed, as it is not thought to be a threat to vaquita. But the mainstay of local fisheries is shrimp, and the ban on gillnets for shrimp and other economically important species is problematic for the local communities.
While there is a government program to compensate the legal fishers for their loss of income, it has not been implemented as planned. Many legal fishers have found themselves without a source of livelihood and without any support from the compensation program. There are anecdotal reports of greater rates of poverty, of struggles to cover daily food and medical needs, and even of increased robberies by desperate drug addicts. In the meantime, the totoaba fishers (bucheros) continue fishing, posing a serious risk to the poor vaquita while raking in money.
The Future of the Vaquita
The prognosis is grim. The most recent population estimate for vaquita has just been released by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita: around 60 vaquitas remain in the entire world. If they go extinct, they will only be the second cetacean (whale, porpoise, dolphin) to be driven extinct by human causes; the first was the Yangtze River dolphin, declared extinct in the last decade.
The bycatch problem for vaquita has been recognized for decades, but conservation efforts have been mired in a mess of miscommunication and corruption. After briefly considering working on the issue for my PhD, I decided that it was too complex and politically charged. I opted to instead study the bycatch of other marine mammal species in Southeast Asia, where I used a combination of ecological and social science research to learn about the animals, the threats posed by local fisheries, and the people who depended on the fisheries in question. It was a wonderful combination of cruising around in boats, essentially dolphin-watching for work, and interviewing people in the local communities. I especially relished observing the animals – it evoked a sense of wonder and excitement, of communing with something truly special.
And now here I was, a postdoctoral researcher with the Gulf of California Marine Program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, working on a project on the vaquita at a time when the issue had only become more complex and more political. And there was to be no communing with the study animal for this project; no time on a boat, no binoculars, no gentle spray of saltwater. I’ve never seen a vaquita, and probably never will. Other, more qualified marine mammal scientists have already established what we need to know about the vaquita: that there is a distressingly low number of them left, and that their habitat overlaps with fishing grounds. The problem has been defined.
Working on the solutions to the problem is predominantly an exercise in understanding people: what they do, what they want and need, how they’re governed, how they interact. Lamentably, there is widespread mistrust and resentment between different groups involved – fishers and community members, conservation NGOs, academic scientists, government agencies. If nothing else, hopefully this vaquita conservation situation will serve as a cautionary tale on what not to do.
In a partnership with Samantha Young at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, my team and I are interviewing people from all walks of the vaquita conservation universe, focusing on the communities of El Golfo de Santa Clara and San Felipe, asking them about the future of vaquita conservation. This allows us to learn what they think will happen and what they think should happen. They share their ideas or visions for how to reach the most ideal situation possible for the vaquita, for local fisheries, and for their communities. Listening to these responses has been a fascinating experience in developing empathy for diverse groups with diverse hopes, fears, and perspectives.
I am a newcomer to the large group of dedicated people who have been working on this issue in various capacities for years. As such, my vision for what I can contribute to this situation is fairly modest, and perhaps naïve. I hope that our results will help serve as a foundation for greater empathy among the different groups involved in and impacted by vaquita conservation. It sounds all “warm and fuzzy,” but empathy is critical to effective and ethical conservation. It allows for respectful and productive collaboration between these different groups, which is needed to design solutions that consider the varied and sometimes divergent needs and interests of these groups.
Interviewing people is not the kind of fieldwork I’d envisioned for myself back when I first became fascinated with the vaquita. I was first drawn to ecology because I wanted to work in forests and on the ocean, hiking or on boats or diving, to see and study rare animals with my own eyes. I had not pictured myself engaging in vaguely stalker-like behavior to track down interviewees, bothering people for their time for no direct benefit to them. Studying conservation issues like the vaquita can be complex, disheartening, and confusing. Each day, we talk with people about serious issues like poverty, corruption, dishonesty, and the huge odds against the vaquita surviving.
However, it is immensely rewarding to learn more about the people in these communities. And, in fairness, the dolphins and other animals I’ve studied have never warmly shook my hand or embraced me and sincerely thanked me for the work my team is doing. It’s becoming trite in the conservation community to state (the very obvious) that “conservation is about people.” But, each time someone says, “Thank you so much for listening to us,” it truly moves me in a way that is even more profound than the pure joy of encountering an endangered species in the wild.
And, it never hurts to take some moments out of each day to sit back and let your mind rest, to appreciate the hearty meal you just ate in good company at a simple food stall – all humbly situated under the grand evening sky on the coast of the Sea of Cortez.
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*Sadly, that “gut feeling” led to many more intense and unpleasant gut feelings during a subsequent research trip, where we became violently ill after eating at this same establishment…