“Ghost dolphins” will go extinct before most people have ever heard of them

Gulf of California. Photo: Jeremy Randall.

Early one October morning, where gray-blue waters brush up against an expanse of red hills, a team of 65 veterinarians and biologists from around the world set out on a calm sea. Convening equipment and summoning optimism had been their routine for several mornings now. But this day would be different. The winds had finally died down enough to see what they had traveled thousands of miles for — a creature so elusive that most people don’t even know it exists.

The subject of their search was the vaquita, a species of porpoise endemic to Mexico’s Gulf of California. Sometimes referred to as a ghost dolphin for their coyness and rarity, they are the most endangered cetacean in the world, with a rapidly declining population that has now dwindled to just 12 individuals. But even though their death can be unequivocally linked to poaching, nobody has ever killed one… intentionally.

Drawing of the vaquita. Photo: Navasola Nature.

The vaquita’s demise is somewhat an outlier compared to their cetacean cousins. There is no demand for their body parts or derivatives. And, despite the having panda-like rings around their eyes and a mouth locked in a painfully cute permanent smile, vaquitas are not sought after as pets. One had never even been caught before that October morning in 2018. Their population decline is entirely attributed to the hunting of a different species, the totoaba, a fish in whose macabre wake the vaquita has been grievously caught.

The totoaba’s swim bladder — the organ that keeps it afloat — is erroneously thought to increase fertility among followers of Traditional Chinese Medicine. To catch totoabas, fishers cast monumental nets called gill nets that cover large portions of the ocean floor at a time. They throw the nets in the water, let them sit for a while, and sort through the catch once reeling them back in. That catch can include sea turtles, sharks, other fish, and, of course, vaquitas. For the air-breathing porpoises, being caught in a gill net spells out a twisted fate of drowning in the very waters that sustain them.

Why don’t we ban gill nets then?

Well, we did.

A vaquita entangled in a gill net. Photo: Proyecto Vaquitas

Gill nets have been illegal in the Gulf of Mexico since the 1970s, but with little enforcement and a price tag that pays up to $4,000 per pound of swim bladder, the cost-benefit ratio means fishers are not going to stop using them.

This is where those 65 biologists and vets stepped in, embarking on a last-ditch attempt to save the critically endangered species.

Now that the winds had died down, the team divided itself between two vessels. One would be the lookout crew, tasked with the arduous task of finding the notoriously shy animals, and the other would be the capture crew, responsible for catching them. Once caught, the vaquitas would be immediately transported to holding tanks where they could live and breed away from the threat of gill nets.

But without having ever captured a vaquita before, there was no way of knowing how the individuals would respond, and fears of a bad response ultimately proved clairvoyant. The first individual they caught displayed immediate signs of distress and was successfully released back into the gulf. But the second individual became stressed after being placed in the tank, and when the team tried to release her, she sadly succumbed to a heart attack.

At the time of the mission, there were thirty vaquitas left on Earth. The death of one individual represented a population decline of 3% — a number too high to risk again. For this reason, the mission was immediately called off and the remaining vaquitas were left at the mercy of consumers and fishers.

Today, less than a year after the rescue mission, the vaquitas’ population has dwindled to numbers that many conservationists believe make the species genetically extinct. This means that, even if gill nets were removed from the Gulf of California tomorrow, they would likely not have enough genetic diversity to re-populate.

There’s a good chance your Facebook feed will soon be filled with angry tirades and #RIP posts after the ghost porpoise has already become a ghost. But make no mistake: though it may seem to inundate the Internet suddenly when it happens, the extinction of the vaquita is not coming out of nowhere. It is being deliberately perpetuated, day after day, by ignorance and greed.

And even if there is little hope for saving the species, there is still an ethical duty to tell their story along the way.

Full-time storyteller, part-time fruit connoisseur // More at amandarbrown.com

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