In her work monitoring populations of marine mammals for NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, Barbara Taylor has had to deal with sad endings. First, she was involved in the determination that the Baiji, or Chinese River Dolphin, existed no more. And now she and those she toils with are faced with the reality that the endearing little Vaquita, who lives only a few hundred miles from us here in Southern California will vanish on their watch. Why? It’s a sad saga that like many tragedies is driven by human greed.
Similar to the belief that ground Rhino horn is a potion that increases virility, or that bear paws are an aphrodisiac, the belief that consuming the swim bladders of fish enhances complexion and boosts fertility is driving Asian consumers to once again abet the extinction of another host of creatures.
This greedy tragedy starts again in Asia. The population of the traditionally preferred source of swim bladders, a large Asian in-shore fish called the yellow croaker, has plummeted due to a host of causes (but in no small part to overfishing). With the scarcity, the value of such bladders increased, so the Asian market has spread its nets, pun intended – to find another source for the storied swim bladders.
Enter the Totoaba, another giant croaker, technically the largest member of the drum family, found only in Mexico’s Gulf of California. The Totoaba, which grows to a size often described as on par with an NFL offensive lineman, has a huge swim bladder which regulates its buoyancy. The Totoaba is also a delicious fish to eat. Once abundant, it was the subject of an intensive fishery. Coupled with other environmental insults such as the diversion of river flows into the Gulf of California, their numbers have been drastically reduced. Mexico banned the fishery in 1975 and it is internationally recognized as an endangered species. But that didn’t stop the fishing for Totoaba. The scarcity and belief in the mythical powers of swim bladders have made even this protected fish a prime target.
Which brings us to yet another critically endangered sea creature – the endearing little Vaquita or “little cow.” The smallest and rarest of all the porpoises, and the rarest cetacean in all of the world’s seas, the Vaquita is Mexico’s only endemic marine mammal. It only lives in the far northern reaches of the Gulf of California. With a range that overlaps the spawning migrations of Totoaba, the tiny Vaquita with its distinctive make-up like facial markings is directly in the cross-hairs of pirate fisherman and the criminal enterprise which supports them. These pirates use huge illegal gillnets to ensnare the Totoaba. At never more than five-feet long, the Vaquita also become trapped in these indiscriminate trawls and perish – dying just as you or I would trapped in a net anchored to the bottom of the sea, struggling to get free for a breath of air.
The scarcity of Totoaba has made their swim bladders an actual instrument of investment in Asia where they are purchased and locked away. Their value becoming akin to that of illicit drugs – bringing tens of thousands of dollars for a single prime swim bladder and arousing the involvement of even drug cartels. With only profit in mind, the pirates take only the swim bladders and leave the shores of Baja California littered with the withering carcasses of Totoaba and everything else their nets destroy, from Humpback whales, to sea-turtles, to earth’s most endangered little porpoise.
The bottom line in this sad saga of myth-driven human misdeeds is that this little creature, inhabiting earth for perhaps 11 million years but known to us only since 1958, is under imminent threat of extinction. As it peacefully forages for small fish and shrimp in the warm, nutrient-rich waters of the northern Gulf of California it faces a looming threat and may soon vanish – very soon.
Barbara Taylor and an international team of experts have established that there are only about 60 Vaquita remaining. She and many others are leading an heroic effort to save our little neighbor, but there may not be time to prevent the Vaquita’s destruction. Drastic, immediate and direct measures must be taken and enforced – or not only Barbara, but all of us, will very soon face a very sad ending to this story of greed and our own failure to act on behalf of defenseless victims.
Contributed by science producer Rich Wargo