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Building Empathy on International Save the Vaquita Day

By Dune Ives, Executive Director of the Lonely Whale Foundation

Scientists have estimated that there are only 30 Vaquita left in our ocean.

You read that right, just 30 of the world’s smallest porpoise are left in existence.

Considered one of the top 100 evolutionary distinct and globally endangered (EDGE) mammals in the world, the Vaquita is often described as shy, cautious and elusive. It is both a predator and a prey contributing a vital role to balancing a critically important marine ecosystem.

It’s also endemic to the waters of the Sea of Cortez. That means these 30 remaining Vaquita are not known to exist anywhere else on Earth.

If something isn’t done immediately, the Vaquita simply won’t exist anywhere, at all.

Scientists only discovered the Vaquita in the late 1950s but immediately recognized their value as residents of the Upper Gulf of California, a globally unique and biodiverse environment. Since their discovery, illegal fishing has taken root in the area, severely damaging the ecosystem and its wildlife.

Often caught in gillnets set to trap other species, most notably the Totoaba, which is also an endangered species valued for its fish bladder for soups and erroneous medicinal purposes, the Vaquita are dying at a rate almost unimaginable because of our human activity.

While the demise of the Vaquita porpoise is the fault of humanity, it is also an opportunity for us to realize our own humanity. We can save this species. In working together, we have the chance to protect the Vaquita and demonstrate the power of empathy and cross-sector collaboration to drive ocean-positive environmental action.

But how do we accomplish such a task?

Secretary of the Environment and Natural Resources of Mexico, Rafael Pacchiano, has stated that the Mexican president’s financial commitment to the cause “demonstrates the administration…continues to be dedicated to providing the necessary resources to give this plan its best chance of success.” Yes, the commitment of the government is critical. But as the Mexican government continues to maintain its commitment to protecting the creature native to their waters, other organizations have stepped up. This is where success starts.

Vaquita in the northern gulf of California

In a unique collaboration, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Global Wildlife Conservation, and the Mexican Government are now addressing the issue together in one, singularly messaged Vaquita Rescue Plan. The plan will locate, catch, and house Vaquitas in the Gulf of California, with the ultimate goal to return the animals to a gillnet-free environment. This plan poses immediate challenges and risks to scientists who are yet unsure that they are able to capture the Vaquita porpoises.

To directly address challenges, the Vaquita Emergency Response Plan team created an international, interdisciplinary team with experts in every sector to implement a stepwise plan. An expert advisory group has also been established to provide guidance and input at critical stages throughout the implementation of the plan.

What I see as a true success in this emergency response plan to save the Vaquita is its commitment to directly address the cause of the issue: gill nets and illegal fishing. While the rescued Vaquita are housed in a sanctuary habitat, the response team will tackle the necessary removal of gillnets from the animal’s home range. This also opens a critical avenue for direct community engagement, allowing the cross-sector team to communicate with and help empower the local fishing communities to alter their practices to a marine-friendly approach. We have seen successes like these in the past from critical work accomplished by Shawn Heinrichs and his Manta Ray of Hope Campaign. This campaign not only led CITES to protect the magnificent Mantas, but it also spurred a new tourism industry led by the local community who had taken joint action in the campaign.

As Wes Sechrest, Global Wildlife Conservation chief scientist and CEO, said, “[t]he Vaquita is emblematic of our planet’s extinction crisis, which requires urgent action.” Our success in saving the Vaquita will also be emblematic—emblematic of our human ability to work together and save our blue planet.

Celebrate World Vaquita Day by taking action and building empathy for our world’s ocean.

Support GWC’s efforts to save the Vaquita: donate to the Vaquita Emergency Response Plan here.

About the Author

Dune Ives

Dune Ives

Dune is the Executive Director of the Lonely Whale Foundation where she designs and leads change-making ocean conservation initiatives to address key drivers of environmental degradation and species decline. Her expertise in sustainability and environmental business issues across corporate, municipal, nonprofit, and philanthropic institutions, coupled with a Ph.D. in Psychology, allows for an innovative yet practical approach to resolving systemic challenges for our environment. Prior to joining the Lonely Whale Foundation, Dune was the head of Paul Allen’s Vulcan Philanthropy and led the Great Elephant Census, Global Fin Print, Smart Catch, and the BLM Coal Leasing Program PEIS lawsuit. Additionally, Dune oversaw Paul Allen's $100M Global Ebola commitment and the Allen Distinguished Educators program. Dune is also the co-founder of The Green Sports Alliance and an inaugural member of Al Gore’s The Climate Reality Project.