Skip to main content



Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez

Brooke Bessesen
Island Press
313 pp
Purchase this item now

In a poem for the recently extinct Yangtze River dolphin, Goodbye Baiji, author Brooke Bessesen laments the cetacean’s untimely departure: “We bored of your life, your struggle—We tired of your incessant need, your slow demise… What? You are gone?… Now what will we do, not do?” The baiji’s extinction in 2006 made Mexico’s tiny endemic porpoise, the vaquita (Phocoena sinus), the “world’s most endangered marine mammal.” Unlike the Yangtze River dolphin, however, the vaquita may yet be saved. Vaquita is a lucid, informed, and gripping account of a species that will soon be lost in the absence of effective actions.

Although its populations are naturally small, with limited genetic diversity, lethal alleles have likely been purged, so the vaquita isn’t biologically predisposed to extinction. Another sort of threat has rendered the species at risk.

Fishermen arrived at the Sea of Cortez in the 1920s in pursuit of Totoaba macdonaldi, a drum fish whose swim bladder provides a substitute for that of the critically endangered drum fish Bahaba taipingensis, which is coveted in China for its purported curative powers. A totoaba fisherman can earn up to $1800 for a single bladder, and in China, they can go for up to $250,000.

Since the 1940s, gillnets have been the tool of choice for capturing totoaba, but their unintended capture includes the vaquita, who often become entangled and drown. By the 1990s, as much as 90% of the original vaquita population was lost. From 1997 to 2008, the population plummeted another 57%. One Mexican scientist recently estimated that perhaps 15 remain.

In 1997, an advisory committee was formed, bringing together scientists and fisheries experts to provide input on the vaquita’s conservation to the Mexican government. Bessesen describes the work of dedicated scientists from Mexico, the United States, and elsewhere and reveals that it is not for lack of data that the vaquita has suffered. She praises the work of Sea Shepherd, a nonprofit marine conservation group that assists in patrolling for poachers and safeguarding the Vaquita Refuge.

Vaquita details the tortuously slow and ineffective response of the Mexican government to the vaquita crisis. Past bans on gillnets, we learn, were often ignored or included loopholes that allowed their continued use. Plans to encourage fishermen to give up gillnets were ultimately unsuccessful, despite multimillion-dollar investments. Bessesen describes corruption at all levels of the government, exacerbated by widespread anti-vaquita sentiments.

The government of Mexico will ultimately determine the fate of the vaquita. The actions required to save the porpoise from extinction are clear, such as the need to make gillnets illegal to own and sell, a commitment to effective enforcement, and enabling the use of alternative fishing gears.
The Center for Biological Diversity has submitted petitions to the U.S. government to ban the import of Mexican seafood and other wildlife until the illegal totoaba trade ends. Despite China’s commitment to cut off its consumers, very few arrests occur on that end of the supply chain. Perhaps the network behind the recent trade ban on ivory in China could next address totoaba bladders?

Bessesen approaches the plight of the vaquita with the thoroughness and inquisitiveness of a scientist and the passion of an environmentalist. She has written a must-read for anyone keen to understand the realities of protecting biodiversity. In doing so, she fulfilled a promise she made to a small female vaquita that died from entanglement in a gillnet: “I will tell your story…”

About the author

The reviewer is an independent consultant based in Dakar, Senegal.