In this latter category, the vaquita, or "little cow" porpoise of Mexico, takes first place. A sleek creature with huge, dark eyes and a mouth that seems outlined in a permanent smile, this smallest of the porpoise species is as appealing as a puppy, though you will never be able to pet it. In fact, if things don't change fairly soon, you may never see it, because the creatures are rapidly disappearing from their environment.
The vaquita, less than five feet long and 100 pounds, is endangered. Of the roughly 150 survivors living in and around the Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez, this denizen of ocean waters between the sleeve of Baja, California and the mass of Mexico is facing extinction as a result of fishing.
It's hard to know just how close to extinction the vaquita, or gulf porpoise, really is, because these shy creatures are not gregarious, even among their own kind, and spend very little time on the surface. The introverts of the ocean, they like it quiet, and a lack of solitude caused by fishing, shrimping and tourism (pdf) means even their breeding efforts are failing. The vaquita now die faster than they can reproduce.
As more and more are trapped in fishermen's nets, or injured or killed by the local shrimp boats, the gentle, reclusive vaquita come closer and closer to that tipping point beyond which species failure is virtually insured. In a few short years, a handful at most, reduction to a few breeding pairs will put the vaquita on the shortlist to extinction.
Having their own preserve hasn't helped. This area, established by the Mexican government in 1993 to protect the endangered vaquita, is very small, and fishing is banned in only 637 square miles. Vaquita that venture outside the preserve - as many do - suffer from netting or being run over by boats. In 1993, for example, 39 of the endangered porpoises were caught and killed in just one of the three fishing ports outside the preserve by being trapped in gill nets.
Mexico is doing its part to prevent the vaquita's disappearance by asking fisherman to forgo the use of drag and gill nets, or give up fishing altogether.
The measure is strictly voluntary at this point, and fishermen will be paid from a $16-million government fund which provides $4,500 to each fisherman who stays out of the preserve. Other provisions include as much as $35,000 to learn safer methods of fishing and shrimping, and as much as $60,000 for surrendering their boats, motors and fishing licenses to the government.
Mexico's Environment Secretary, Juan Rafael Elvira, adds that the government's intent is to save the vaquita, not create more hardship for the people. Mexican fishermen are reluctantly cooperative. For most, fishing and shrimping are the only skills they have. For a handful, the windfall represents an opportunity to retire. For others, who have noticed a steady decline in their catch - presumably as a result of diminishing Colorado River water flowing into the gulf and the increasing pollution of that water when it does arrive - the fate of the vanishing vaquita is symbolic of the end of an era.
The vaquita was first identified in 1958. Also known as the Gulf of California porpoise, the elusive vaquita, whose Latin name is Phocena sinus, stands at a crossroads where tradition and progress conflict. In recent years, its numbers have grown so limited that researchers give it only two more years (pdf) before any options for preservation become "severely limited". Nor are the survivors likely to be rescued by transplantation or captive breeding programs. According to those same researchers, the vaquita's solitary nature will lead to high rates of mortality whether moved elsewhere or enclosed in monitored aquatic environments.
Will Mexico's "little cow" porpoise enter the ranks of those animals, birds and plants our children will never see except in pictures? Or will the good hearts of Mexico's gulf fisherman, and the generosity of the world, rescue it from extinction?
It can go either way, and it is really up to us.
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