On February 17th, 2018, on a perfectly sunny morning in the volcanic valley of Mexico City, my place of birth and the city where my uncles and cousins reside still, I joined hundreds of people outside the severe, cement architecture of the Tamayo Modern Art Museum and National Anthropology Museum, representing diverse organizations and nations to reflect upon the fate of the world’s most endangered marine mammal – the little Gulf of California Harbor Porpoise (Phocoena sinus), known to Mexicans and the general public as la vaquita marina, or “the little sea cow.” We marched to remind ourselves that a porpoise’s life is no less precious than our own, and no less worthy of the right to exist on our little blue planet.
Throughout the day, I would ask myself, “what does it mean to lose yet another species when we have already lost half of our planet’s biological diversity in the past four decades? What are doing wrong – as individuals, organizations, nations, and a globalized society that we have precipitated a seemingly irreversible mass-extinction, and what will be the total cost – spiritual, social, and economic? How long can we continue undermining our planet’s biodiversity and our species’ life-support system, and how will we know what we stand to lose and have already lost when the ecosystem is so complex and interconnected that its intricacies may forever elude our scientific understanding?”
Mexican artist and conservationist Patricio Robles Gil, a notable figure in Mexico’s conservation community, was asking similar questions and invited the public to join him in mourning with a ceremony that he conceived for the vanishing vaquita. Endemic to the northern Gulf of California, less than thirty vaquita individuals remained at the time of the ceremony, and just three years later we are down to just one third of that already troubling number. Thanks largely to social media, and the magnetic pull of the event’s en vogue, albeit tragic theme, the ceremony was well-attended and there were hundreds of Mexican elementary school students – many holding up pictures of other endangered wildlife, government agency representatives, directors of NGO’s, renowned ecologists, photographers, TV personalities, and concerned citizens.
Sadly, no one offered to sponsor a trip for a representative of San Felipe or Golfo de Santa Clara – the northern Gulf fishing communities that are most directly impacted by this issue. Whether or not they would have attended is another story, as many people in these struggling communities hold the government and conservation sector accountable for decades of inconsistent and poorly followed-up policies that they feel have done more harm than good, sometimes both to the ecosystem and the local people. One week after the procession in Mexico City a significant group of residents of San Felipe gathered on the streets to protest delays in the payment of government financial compensation for fisheries closures, delays in approving policies – such as the required Environmental Impact Statement concerning the controversial fishery for corvina – a fish that occurs and spawns within the vaquita’s core habitat in the northern Gulf Biosphere Reserve.
Finally, the fisherfolk of San Felipe were protesting the promise made by the Federal Government in early February to expand the polygon of the barely-protected Vaquita Refuge and increase enforcement measures. Of course the mafia running the totoaba fishery, and other illicit operations, would benefit from supporting such protests, so it’s difficult to know what is what until the money is followed out of the community and into the pockets of a few. Nevertheless, most residents really are struggling to put food on the table day to day and one hopes that their concerns do not fall on deaf ears, be they those of the Mexican government or of the international community. Their destiny and the vaquita’s are deeply entangled as if in a nylon net.
“Every vaquita that dies in a fisherman’s net hurts and affects us deeply,”
began Robles Gil in his moving speech which was hard to hear from even fairly close. Note to do speeches inside with loud speakers. Metaphorically speaking, Gil’s words reveal a deeply held truth, but it will be business as usual for most of Mexico’s citizens should the vaquita swim off the brink. In the Gulf of California, as in much of the world, illegal, unregulated, and unreported fishing activities, like the northern Gulf fishery for the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) – a drum fish of ancient lineage that was fished since the 1920’s, once a popular sport fish, today harvested exclusively for its swim-bladder or búche*, will continue until total ecological and commercial collapse is inevitable. That is unless we take coordinated and multilateral action immediately. In the case of totoaba, the organs are most profitable when harvested from the most mature and fecund fish, eight or so decades old. What is more, the “economics of extinction” are such that reducing the population of wild totoaba raises the market value of their organs, meaning that Chinese merchants and buyers are literally banking on biodiversity loss. With some fishermen making illicit fortunes, and others holding signs that claim, many truthfully so, that “we are starving,” conservation funders and other stakeholders are finding the northern Gulf’s blood soaked waters difficult to navigate.
*The totoaba buche is a gnarly looking organ is falsely purported to have medicinal value, namely as a treatment for erectile dysfunction, and can fetch around $20,000 USD on the black market in China, namely in Hong Kong and Taiwan, while the rest of the fish, despite offering delicious white meat, is wastefully discarded.
There are people, however, in all nations, including fishermen, community leaders, businesspeople, scientists, and elected officials who really do care about the future we are leaving behind us, and who dare to dream that the world our children and grandchildren will inhabit is worth more than the cash we can stuff into our pockets. Speaking to some of these concerned people at the event, it was clear that there were different perspectives among diverse attendees.
“Is there a fundamental problem with meeting the extinction crisis by focusing on an individual, albeit charismatic, species?” / “Is it counter-productive to gather in the Capital, away from the communities whose fates are most entangled with the vaquita?” / “Is it time to mourn what we have lost, such that we can continue pushing for a brighter future without dragging the dead weight of past mistakes?” / and, “are we mourning too soon when there is still hope for the vaquita?”
These are all important conversations to be had, but one thing the crowd silently agreed on through their presence at this event was that the loss of a unique and fragile being, helplessly swimming against the tide of human devastation, is representative of both a spiritual and very real global crisis. Indeed, both the vaquita procession and the concurrent protest in San Felipe were calls to action – offered up as loud and clear as should be needed to get our attention. This deafness is not unique to Mexico, and as a marine conservationist trained in New Zealand I know of another even tinier porpoise, the Maui Dolphin, that swims on the edge of extinction as a result of poor fisheries management and a profitable market for NZ snapper in the USA.
What moved me most about the procession was the tangible solidarity among people, young and old, and of different socio-economic backgrounds, philosophies, and professional organizations. Of the people I knew there was my uncle, a pediatric surgeon in his late 60’s who grew up blocks away from the museum where we marched, my youthful cousin, a female social anthropologist from Mexico City who now lives in Holland, along with the director of the French kindergarten I once attended, and I recognized the renowned marine and terrestrial ecologist from the University of California, Riverside, Dr. Exequiel Ezcurra – a collaborator of my previous institutional supervisor Dr. Aburto Oropeza.
The focal point of Robles Gil’s procession was the unveiling of a sculpture he had created for the National Anthropology Museum – a Spartan, apocalyptic, alien looking piece in which a vaquita skull rests inside the hollow of an upside down horseshoe shape with bronze-casts of plastic debris collected from Mexican beaches. The Aztec civilization, whose relics the vaquita cranium has now joined in the great Museum, is most famous for its unique relationship with death. For the Aztec people to flourish, their Gods required sacrifices. Furthermore, the dead are ever present, happily returning to share a meal and a shot of fermented agave with the living, perhaps even to give advice. Likewise, the vaquita will forever remain an integral part of Mexico’s history and culture in the making, and should it become extinct, its memory may indeed haunt us.