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‘The posterchild for entangled marine mammals around the globe:’ Q&A with author of ‘Vaquita’

Earlier this year, Mongabay reported that there might be as few as 12 vaquita left in the world, down from 30 in 2017.

The vaquita population has been driven to the brink of extinction by the illegal trade in swim bladders from a fish called totoaba, which are highly sought after by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine, though they have no scientifically proven health benefits. Despite a ban that is currently in place, gillnets are used to catch totoaba in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California — and they also ensnare vaquita, causing them to drown.

Author Brooke Bessesen traveled to the Upper Gulf of California (also known as the Sea of Cortez), the vaquita’s only known range, to speak with local townspeople, fishermen, scientists, and activists in order to tell the tale of the small porpoise whose future is very much in doubt. The result is her new book, Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez, released last month by Island Press.

Mexico made a two-year ban on gillnets in the Upper Gulf permanent last year, but that has not reversed the drastic downward trend in the vaquita population as the criminal cartels who have taken over the totoaba swim bladder trade have altogether disregarded the ban. A last-ditch effort to capture all of the remaining vaquita and breed them in captivity was also launched last year, and Bessesen was there at the time — which makes for a particularly dramatic point in the vaquita’s story, as the effort was ultimately halted after a breeding-age female died from complications related to being held in captivity.

Mongabay spoke with Bessesen about what drew her into telling the vaquita’s story, what it was like to actually see a vaquita in the wild, and whether or not she came away from the experience with any hope that the diminutive marine mammal known as “the panda of the sea” might ultimately survive.

Vaquita illustration by Greenpeace Mexico.

Mongabay: What first drew you to research and write about the vaquita’s plight?

Brooke Bessesen: The idea of writing a book came after attending a lecture by vaquita scientist Lorenzo Rojas in 2010. There were only about 200 of the remarkable porpoises left at that time, and the main threat to the species was commercial gillnets, especially for shrimp exports to the United States. A few years later, the totoaba trade exploded. By the time I started writing in 2016, Mexico was spending millions of dollars trying to enforce a gillnet ban with cartels running a swim-bladder smuggling operation to China. As soon as I began researching this story, I was drawn into a vortex of intrigue and urgency.

In the course of your on-site research, did you discover anything that was particularly surprising or that you hadn’t expected going into the situation?

BB: On my very first day in San Felipe, a female vaquita was found dead on the beach (a sad and gruesome introduction to the topic of entanglement). After the initial shock, one of the scientists said, “Well, there’s one good thing about dead vaquitas.” I thought, what that could possibly be? He told me, “Their bodies are evidence. Proof that they exist.” Turns out, many people in the Baja region believe vaquita to be a mythical animal. An unexpected hurdle for vaquita conservation: How do we save a species that isn’t even acknowledged?

Did you actually get to see a vaquita in the wild? What was that experience like?

BB: Given the vaquita’s elusive nature and low numbers, I honestly expected to write a whole book without ever seeing my subject. It was a total surprise when we spotted two vaquitas from a panga while exchanging underwater acoustic monitoring devices. Despite every effort, I still find it impossible to describe the experience. I can easily cite the time of day (6:05am) and who I was with (three fishermen contractors), but there are simply no words for the profound sense of connectedness the sighting provoked in me. I often wonder if those two vaquitas are still alive.

Artist Leo Gonzales painted a vaquita mural on his house in El Golfo de Santa Clara to raise awareness of the small porpoises’s plight. Photo by Brooke Bessesen.

As you detail in your book, criminal syndicates are very much involved in the illegal trade in totoaba maws that is driving the vaquita extinct. Did you ever feel unsafe being in the area and asking questions?

BB: I never felt any immediate threat, but with so many interviewees asking to have their names withheld, and with boat burnings and cartel shootings making news, my nerves were always prickling. Any real concern, however, is for vaquitas and their advocates living and working in the Upper Gulf. While honest fishermen are struggling to feed their families, criminal poachers are brazenly working in broad daylight with no fear of imprisonment. Indeed, when an alleged cartel leader and totoaba trafficker was recently arrested with weapons and drugs in his possession for the murder and attempted-murder of two law enforcement officials, he was released within a week for “deficiencies in due process.” Until crime and corruption are eradicated, there is risk to anyone who might ask questions.

You traveled to the Sea of Cortez to investigate firsthand. Do any of your experiences or any of the conversations you had with people in the region stick out in your mind?

BB: In the gendered language of Spanish, vaquita is feminine — la vaquita. This leads native speakers to refer to the species as “she.” Although it was strange to my ear at first, I was always charmed by this grammatical form, and after many conversations, I found myself adopting the style and even allowing it to influence my writing voice. Vaquita is dying. Will we help her?

You were there for the attempt conservationists made at capturing all of the surviving vaquita in order to breed them in captivity. What was it like to witness such a desperate attempt to save the species fail?

Gillnets. Photo by Brooke Bissesen.

BB: The emotional tension was palpable, even though I was not on the boats. I am utterly heartbroken by the suffering of the two vaquitas who were captured. A few groups opposed the effort and their concern for the risks were justified. But the consensus was that it had to be attempted so there could be no questions later about the viability of captivity as a rescue measure. I think of the conservation biologists and veterinarians — people who have dedicated their lives, their entire careers, to the protection of vaquita. They were pushed to this extreme measure and I know it was agonizing for them. To watch all their effort, and whatever hope it held, end in such sadness was almost unbearable. Everyone must now refocus and unify efforts to save the vaquitas still alive in the Upper Gulf.

Do you think, ultimately, there’s any hope for the vaquita? And even if not, do you think there are any hopeful lessons to be drawn from the vaquita’s story as told in your book? What were some of the more inspiring things you witnessed while researching this book?

BB: As long as there are vaquitas, there is hope. We must kindle that hope — it fuels our resolve to save this charming little porpoise. Indeed, the most inspiring moments of my research were touched by human compassion. Despite all the obstacles, people still care enough to help. Social scientists strive to understand the struggles of the local people and support them to live better. Biologists keep collecting and sharing data, trusting us to open our eyes and act. Conservationists design new fishing gear and inspire fishermen to embrace sustainable practices. Activists patrol the waters, day and night, to protect the last living vaquitas. Watching all this, I have renewed faith that, together, we can drive change. That is hope. As a biologist named Sara once told me, “In the end, we are fighting for life.”

Even if the vaquita doesn’t make it, what do you hope your book can achieve?

BB: Although Vaquita focuses on this enigmatic porpoise, it also widens the lens for other at-risk species. I was confident the story would captivate readers who care about the environment. But delving into the dangers of cartels and corruption, the urgent need for U.S.- and Mexican-government action, and the mysteries of the elusive vaquita, I began to realize it would also attract readers who are drawn to more provocative content, who might otherwise overlook a book about endangered species. Vaquita is not an isolated case. She is the posterchild for entangled marine mammals around the globe. So, on the big scale, that’s what I hope the book does — I hope it brings everyone into the conversation, so we can figure out how to do things better.

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