By Darryl Fears
Little is known about the shy vaquita porpoises that spend long periods feeding under muddy coastal waters off Mexico, but this much is certain: They are the world’s smallest porpoise — cute as a button — and they could soon disappear forever if they keep turning up dead in fishing nets. The latest stock assessment by a panel of international scientists showed that there are fewer than 100 left and that they are declining at a rate of nearly 20 percent a year. U.S. officials have pressed Mexico to close their habitat in the upper Gulf of California to all fishing, and they expressed exasperation recently when the Mexican government did not announce stricter regulations as expected.
If vaquitas vanish, they would be the first known cetacea in North America to do so and the first in the world since the Chinese river dolphin was declared extinct in 2006.
Dolphins differ from porpoises in their noses, namely that blunt-faced porpoises do not have much of a snout. But the vaquita overcomes that shortcoming with a starlet’s beauty. “It’s got the goth look going on, the black lipstick and heavy mascara around the eyes,” said Barbara Taylor, a conservation biologist for the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, run by the U.S. Commerce Department in San Diego.
Timid and elusive, vaquitas — Spanish for “little cows” — are four to five feet long and weigh up to about 120 pounds. They get caught in the gill nets of Mexican fishermen casting for large blue shrimp, a delicacy American restaurant-goers crave.
They also drown in the nets of poachers in pursuit of the endangered totoaba, a large sea bass prized for its bladder, which is cherished by the Chinese as an alternative medicine.
A pair of totoaba bladders can fetch $8,500 in China, officials with the National Marine Fisheries Service said. In recent weeks, 385 bladders were confiscated in Mexico City.
To rescue vaquitas, international scientists are hoping for a collaboration between the United States, where the shrimp is consumed; China, where the bladders are boiled into a soup; and Mexico, where fishermen are trying to feed families.