Recent reports have made the devastating claim that there may be as few as 12 individual vaquita porpoises now separating the species from extinction.
The diminutive porpoises, which grow to a length of just 1.5 metres, are only known to be resident in a small area of the Gulf of California. The scientific community only became aware of their existence in 1950.
The reason for the long-standing and desperate population decline has been due to gillnetting in the area for totoaba. These large Mexican fish, which are also now critically endangered, are highly prized for their swim bladders, with China being the main market for this lucrative 'delicacy'.
The gill nets, which hang in the water like vertical panels of netting, are the right size to also entrap the vaquita, which if unable to reach the surface to breathe will drown.
The vaquita is fast approaching extinction and is a poignant example of the devastating consequences of 'bycatch', or what author and sustainability consultant Dr. Richard Oppenlander more accurately terms ‘bykill’. Both species are now facing extinction due to human arrogance and greed.
Although gill netting in the area has been made illegal, efforts to halt the declines and enforce the ban by the Mexican authorities have had limited success.
When asked if the will to curb the illegal totoaba fishing that has devastated the vaquita was building locally, Andrea Crosta of the international wildlife trade watchdog group Elephant Action League responded: "Not really, certainly not locally in San Felipe and Santa Clara, the two main fish[ing] villages from which the illegal fishermen come.
"I think they are actually waiting for the vaquita to go extinct so they can fish more and with fewer restrictions. The central government of Mexico recently stepped up efforts to curb the use of gillnets in the area where the vaquita lives, but with very poor results, in my opinion.
"I personally saw dozens of illegal fishing vessels (pangas) going out to sea in the middle of the day, even in areas patrolled by the Mexican navy. During the night it is even worse."
Last ditch efforts to save the species by taking some of the animals into a protected sanctuary where it was hoped they would eventually breed, had to be abandoned when in December 2017, one adult female died within a few hours of capture, and another had to be released due to showing signs of severe stress.
At that time there were believed to be only about 30 individuals remaining.
The loss of any one individual in a population already so small was a devastating blow, and now all hopes to save the species from extinction are entirely reliant on stopping the illegal fishing.
Bycatch from fishing operations – legal as well as illegal – is a colossal problem globally. Estimates vary according to the source and how bycatch is defined.
The World Wildlife Fund, using the definition of bycatch as including 'anything caught that is either unmanaged or unused' have put this figure at what they term is a conservative estimate of at least 40 percent (or 38 million tonnes) of the catches from fishing operations.
The unwanted/unintended species – sentient individuals – are often subsequently thrown dead or dying back into the oceans (known as ‘discards’) or dumped like garbage when back on land.
The figures they quote are truly staggering:
- Over 300,000 small whales, dolphins, and porpoises die from entanglement in fishing nets each year, making bycatch the single largest cause of mortality for small cetaceans.
- 100 million sharks, including the endangered white and blue sharks, are caught and killed every year both in targeted fisheries and as bycatch.
- Over 250,000 endangered loggerhead turtles and critically endangered leatherback turtles drown annually on longlines set for tuna, swordfish and other fish.
- 26 species of seabird, including 17 albatross species, are threatened with extinction because of longline fishing, which kills more than 300,000 seabirds each year.
- 89 per cent of hammerhead sharks and 80 per cent of thresher and white sharks have disappeared from the Northeast Atlantic Ocean, largely due to bycatch.
- About 40 tonnes of cold water corals are caught by bottom trawlers in the North Pacific Ocean.
There are various means of reducing bykill. For example, bird-scaring streamers used by longline fishing vessels can significantly reduce the numbers of albatross deaths.
Many species of this otherwise long-lived seabird are now considered critically endangered due to their getting snagged on bait hooks from where they are dragged to their deaths. Or the use of circular bait hooks, which reduce the numbers of turtle deaths in longline fishing for swordfish and tuna...
Or we could just stop eating fish and other sea life.
Trillions of lives
The number of fish and other sea life caught in fishing operations annually numbers in the trillions.
With more than 75 percent of global commercial fish 'stocks' fully to over-exploited, depleted, or in a state of collapse according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation, and the WWF warning that fish populations may completely collapse globally by 2048, the issue is now arguably less one of over-fishing and one of more simply.... fishing.
Fish farming does not provide the solution either; as well as the many ethical and environmental concerns intrinsic to rearing vast numbers of fish in cramped sea cages, the food they are given is more often than not - derived from wild-caught fish.
According to figures from Compassion In World Farming, more than 450 billion fish are caught and processed into fishmeal and fish oil just to feed farmed fish. (As an unpleasant aside, some farmed fish are also fed 'cakes' containing manure from terrestrial factory farms.)
It may also come as a surprise to many that vast quantities of fish derivatives (fishmeal and fish oil), are also fed to farmed animals, mostly poultry and pigs; natural-born piscivores they are not.
Even when we're not directly affecting marine species' populations by intentionally (or unintentionally) taking them from the oceans, our actions also have knock-on effects on other species.
Quite simply – we are taking the food other species are reliant upon. Some examples of this include the decline of species of baleen whale due to over-harvesting of krill; declines in penguin populations due to over-fishing; pilot whales found beached and in a state of very poor nutritional condition due to overfishing of their main food sources such as mackerel, herring and squid; the collapse of the Steller’s sealion population in the North Pacific due to intense trawling operations...
Legacy of death
On our current trajectory we are leaving an unforgivable legacy of death and destruction on land and in our often 'out of sight, out of mind' oceans. We are obliged, both morally and pragmatically, to change course and quickly – with all the alternative foods available to us, there really is no excuse to continue consuming fish and other sea life; and our oceans are fast running out of time.
It may well be too late now to save the vaquita from extinction, but there are countless other marine species whose futures also lie in the balance due to humanity's relentless plundering of the planet’s seas and oceans. Their fate lies in our hands; they are entirely at the mercy of the decisions we make, most notably the foods we choose to consume.
Off our plates
In his excellent book Food Choice and Sustainability Dr. Richard Oppenlander makes the case that: "If our species is contributing to . . . the demise of other innocent species because of our definable actions, then it is time we stop those actions, especially if there is an easy solution."
And there is an easy solution to so many problems; to leave all animals, and animal products, out of our shopping baskets and off our plates.