My name is Dave Bader and I am the Director of Education at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach California.
A few years ago I was invited along with several others to participate in a conversation about vaquita by Bill Street, Corporate Curator of Conservation and Education at Sea World. The Aquarium of the Pacific has an exhibit about vaquita and I have worked with Bill in the past. He was actually my first boss at the Aquarium of the Pacific. Our goal was to see if we could come up with a way to save some number of vaquita within the following 6 months. At this time there was estimated to be less than 100 vaquita left in the wild. That meeting was eye opening and, to be honest incredibly frustrating, but it set me on a path to work for vaquita conservation efforts. It was at about this same time that the Association of Zoos and Aquariums was establishing its Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) program and I signed on as Coordinator for Public Engagement for the vaquita.
Vaquita Conservation issues are extremely complex. It seems like every good idea evaporates minutes after you think it up because of some confounding problem. Vaquita suffer from gillnets set for fish and shrimp. Today only illegal gillnet fishing for totoaba, a large fish, persists in the range of the vaquita and it is driving them towards extinction. Totoaba swim bladders are dried and sold in China for up to $100,000 per kilogram. This illegal trade puts vaquita into the same conversations as illegal ivory and rhino horn. Illegal wildlife trafficking is a global problem with no simple solutions and unfortunately the vaquita is a part of this much larger story.
Prior to the illegal totoaba fishery, legal fishing for shrimp, exported to the United States was complicit in the decline of vaquita population as well. US consumers were largely not aware that the shrimp they were eating may have played a role in helping a species to go extinct. The issue of sustainable seafood therefore also plays a part in the story of the vaquita.
What I have learned most about however is that we, the greater conservation community, have not paid enough attention to the local communities of people that are entangled in the conservation story along with the vaquita. Regulations to protect vaquita have hurt the communities of the upper gulf and little has been done effectively to find alternatives to harmful fishing practices. The communities of the upper gulf are essential to the long term survival of the vaquita and the totoaba. Conservation efforts must include these communities who have very little opportunity outside of fishing. We must care as much about the people as we do about the vaquita because we all want the same thing, to live a prosperous life for our families and to conserve the natural heritage of the place we live.
If we are to save the vaquita from extinction it will be because we have found a way to keep at bay the global pressures causing depletion of natural resources in one small area of the world. We will have used conservation science to conserve a species and social science to support a community. We will also have worked as a global community, not to point fingers and cast blame, but to double down on our resolve to end extinction together.