Read our interview with the author here.
In 2006, vaquita, a diminutive porpoise making its home in the Upper Gulf of California, inherited the dubious title of world's most endangered marine mammal. Nicknamed "panda of the sea" for their small size and beguiling facial markings, vaquitas have been in decline for decades, dying by the hundreds in gillnets intended for commercially valuable fish, as well as for an endangered fish called totoaba. When international crime cartels discovered a lucrative trade in the swim bladders of totoaba, illegal gillnetting went rampant, and now the lives of the few remaining vaquitas hang in the balance.
Author Brooke Bessesen takes us on a journey to Mexico's Upper Gulf region to uncover the story. She interviewed townspeople, fishermen, scientists, and activists, teasing apart a complex story filled with villains and heroes, a story whose outcome is unclear. When diplomatic and political efforts to save the little porpoise failed, Bessesen followed a team of veterinary experts in a binational effort to capture the last remaining vaquitas and breed them in captivity – the best hope for their survival. In this fast-paced, soul-searing tale, she learned that there are no easy answers when extinction is profitable.
Whether the rescue attempt succeeds or fails, the world must ask itself hard questions. When vaquita and the totoaba are gone, the black market will turn to the next vulnerable species. What will we do then?
"Passionate [...] a heartfelt and alarming tale."
– Publishers Weekly
"Gripping [...] a well-told and moving tale of environmentalism and conservation."
"If Rachel Carson had written a True Crime book, it might read like Brooke Bessesen's Vaquita. This fast-paced story of pirate fishermen, smugglers, killer cartels, dedicated scientists, whale warriors, and Navy dolphins is also a cautionary tale. It's no longer about saving the dolphins or the whales. It's about saving ourselves."
– David Helvarg, author of The Golden Shore: California's Love Affair with the Sea
"The story of the critically endangered vaquita desperately needs telling – and no one can tell it better than Brooke Bessesen. She writes with authority and heart of a conservation crisis that must be addressed now – lest we lose forever, on our watch, the world's smallest and most mysterious porpoise."
– Sy Montgomery, National Book Award Finalist for The Soul of an Octopus
"The vaquita's story is a morality tale for the Anthropocene. How many species will we let slip to their extinction in full knowledge of what is happening, and with the means to prevent their loss so readily available? This beautifully written book serves as a warning that half-measures and compromises in conservation have terrible consequences; opportunities missed may be missed forever."
– Callum Roberts, Professor of Marine Conservation, University of York, United Kingdom
Chapter 1: The Dead Girl
Chapter 2: Resource Extraction
Chapter 3: Chasing a Myth
Chapter 4: Tangled Agendas
Chapter 5: Death, Drugs, and Accountability
Chapter 6: Pirates on Patrol
Chapter 7: Searching for Vaquita
Chapter 8: Hearing Is Believing
Chapter 9: Science in the Sea
Chapter 10: Witnessing Extinction
Chapter 11: Saving Bigfoot
Chapter 12: Sending Out an SOS
Chapter 13: Meet the Totoaba
Chapter 14: Last-Ditch Effort
Chapter 15: Hope Is a Life Raft (with a persistent leak)
Guide to Acronyms
If I asked you to name the most endangered cetacean species, I doubt the vaquita would come to mind. You might mention the baiji, the dolphin living in China’s Yangtze river, but alas, no living members of this species have been seen for years, despite intense search efforts, and the species is presumed extinct. Unfortunately, the vaquita seems to be next in line. Biologist Brooke Bessesen here tells its sad story, revealing the complex world of species conservation.
To understand this story, we need to take stock of two key players. The vaquita is a porpoise, a small marine mammal in the superfamily Delphinoidea or toothed whales. As such, it is a sister-group to dolphins and orcas. It is endemic to the northern part of the Gulf of California, that body of water wedged between mainland Mexico and the Baja California peninsula. Being small, living in turbid water, and both shy and reclusive, it is rarely photographed or filmed and usually seen alone. The vaquita has a bit of PR problem. It wasn’t scientifically described until 1958, and only 60 years later we are about to lose this species forever, their numbers having plummeted from an estimated 600 in 1997, to 60 in 2015 and only an estimated 12 in March 2018. How did it get to this?
Enter key player number two. The vaquita shares its habitat with the totoaba, the largest member of the fish family Scianidae or croakers. Much like sharks are senselessly slaughtered by having their fins cut off for shark fin soup (graphically portrayed in Peschak’s Sharks & People), totoaba are threatened by poachers who catch these animals and cut out their swim bladder. These bladders are being sold on the black market and smuggled to China where they are boiled into soup with supposed curative powers. Yes, you read that right: soup – you will understand my continued aversion to alternative medicine and other such quackery, which fuels a rich trade in animal body parts (see also Nuwer’s Poached or Orenstein’s Ivory, Horn and Blood). And this trade is lucrative, with a single decent-sized bladder fetching the fisherman $1500-$1800, and the end-consumer in China forking out between $10,000-$50,000 for it.
The stories of these two species intersect in the gillnets employed by fishermen to catch totoaba. Consisting of vertical panels of netting, they are left floating in the water column and indiscriminately catch anything. Sharks and rays are ram ventilators (i.e. they need to keep moving to keep water flowing over their gills), whereas turtles and marine mammals regularly need to surface to breathe. Both drown when they end up trapped as by-catch in gillnets.
Bessesen is dumped in right at the deep end of this story – her first encounter with a vaquita is the stainless steel table of a veterinary clinic during a necropsy of a washed up vaquita carcass. Cause of death: entanglement. And the grim tone of the book does not let up from here. Despite legislation in 2013 from the Mexican government to phase out gillnets, an emergency gillnet ban in 2015, and financial incentives to either not fish or use alternative gear that greatly reduces vaquita by-catch, the story on the ground is different. Corruption means that the money goes down the wrong pockets. Bureaucrats are withholding fishing permits for fishermen who actually do care and want to use this alternative gear. Others who accepted the buy-outs and handed in their permits were unsuccessful in their new ventures. Lacking permits, they cannot legally return to fishing and have ended up working for the international crime syndicates who are cashing in on the black market value of the totoaba bladders.
Vaquita is a bleak story, showing humanity at its worst. Many Mexicans, not having seen the shy and reclusive vaquita, openly claim that the species is a myth. Many fishermen would happily see it extinct so they can continue fishing, intimidating and harassing alt-gear fishermen. The government has banned totoaba fishing but allows catching of corvina, a related species, which provides the perfect cover-up to continue illegal totoaba fisheries. Protests by fishermen turn violent. A poacher is killed in a shootout. The fear is palpable in Bessesen’s narrative.
Against this tide of human greed and indifference, Bessesen pitches the proverbial heroes of the story; scientists who are developing acoustic monitoring techniques to estimate population sizes, the volunteers of Sea Shepherd who arrive in the area to actively patrol and clear out abandoned ghost nets. Even Leonardo DiCaprio makes a cameo to sign a memorandum with the Mexican president. At this point in the story, it already feels like too little, much too late, with vaquita population estimates having dropped below 30 individuals.
The last few chapters take on a desperate tone. Bessesen interviews a biologist who is attempting to create a totoaba hatchery programme in a bid to provide a legal supply of swim bladders. A questionable move that did not work for elephants and their ivory tusks. And finally, at the end of 2017, with their backs against the wall, biologists and veterinarians make the controversial decision to try and round up the last remaining vaquita to keep them in captivity, with the hope of reintroducing the species in the future. As documented in my review of Voices in the Ocean, or in books such as Beneath the Surface, most cetaceans don’t do well with captivity – at all. Spoiler alert: the few vaquitas that are caught die shortly afterwards, forcing an immediate termination of this initiative.
One side that Bessesen leaves unexplored is that of the consumers in China. If demand for swim bladders disappears, the vaquita might stand a chance. Vanda Felbab-Brown explores this side of the equation in The Extinction Market and I feel it could very well be here that we need to focus our efforts if we do not want this story to be repeated over and over again.
With so few individuals remaining and no solution at hand, the vaquita is likely doomed to extinction, leaving a clearly distressed Bessesen pondering: what species is next in line? Vaquita is an incredibly well written, nail-biting story, but also a sad and bleak book without a happy ending. Why recommend such a book? Because, as Bessesen vows at the end, she is not willing to silently stand by and watch another species slip into the abyss of extinction before the human juggernaut. So, to her falls the ungrateful and gut-wrenching task of telling their story.
Brooke Bessesen has worked with wildlife for over thirty years in animal rescue, veterinary medicine, and field biology. As a research fellow, she has conducted marine studies in Costa Rica and authored several scientific articles, including one naming a new taxon of sea snake. She has also written five children's books and a popular Arizona wildlife guide. As the founder of Authors for Earth Day, she directs an international coalition of authors who educate school kids about conservation.