The scientists always knew this was a theoretical risk, but here was an actual dead vaquita on their hands. “A devastating setback. There are no words to express how sad I feel,” Andy Read, a marine conservation biologist on the Vaquita CPR project, wrote on Twitter. If the team can’t keep vaquitas alive in captivity, then they can’t breed vaquitas. And if they can’t breed them, then the species will almost certainly die out in the wild. This might just be the end.
What makes it worse is that some of Vaquita CPR’s marine biologists had experienced this before—a fruitless field expedition, the dawning realization that it was too late—and they had vowed to never let it happen again.
* * *
When I asked Taylor to tell me the history of Vaquita CPR, she began with the story of the baiji, a rare white dolphin that lived in China’s Yangtze River. Like the vaquita, it was becoming entangled in fishing nets and dying. Through the ’80s and ’90s, the number of baiji fell precipitously, but lack of survey data obscured the extent of the problem. In 2006, scientists finally convinced a wealthy Swiss man to fund a six-week expedition in search of baiji in the Yangtze River. Taylor was on that expedition. They hoped—and this plan will sound familiar—to gather information so they could later capture baiji and breed them in a reserve before returning them to the river.
But they found nothing. They didn’t see or hear a single baiji. “This species that had been on planet Earth for 30 million years was gone in an eyeblink,” says Taylor. The team concluded the baiji was functionally extinct—the first documented megafauna extinction in half a century. Then the international media started to pay attention. The baiji “only became a story when it was gone,” another scientist on the expedition later observed to The New York Times.
It was too late for the baiji, but there was still hope for the vaquita. “We were very committed to not let that happen to the vaquita,” says Taylor. Within a year of their failed baiji expedition, many of the scientists behind what would become Vaquita CPR published a paper with a call to action, titled “Saving the Vaquita: Immediate Action, Not More Data.” In its opening line, they noted that the likely extinction of the baiji made the vaquita the most endangered cetacean remaining in the world. It was time to act.
At first, the scientists focused on getting nets out of the Gulf of California, the one place where vaquitas live. They lobbied the Mexican government to ban gill nets, which it did in 2015. But the main threat to the vaquitas now are illegal nets used to poach a fish called totoaba, whose swim bladders are a delicacy in China. The gill-net ban wasn’t enough to slow the decline of vaquita. “Once the population dropped below 100, it became evident we needed to consider radical and risky conservation actions,” says Frances Gulland, a senior scientist at the Marine Mammal Center, one of the organizations assisting in Vaquita CPR.