Meet Lorenzo, the world’s leading Vaquita expert

April 15, 2020Interviews

As most of you already know, the name of our new camera is “Vaquita”. The reason is simple: as an Ocean company, we feel obligated to educate and inspire, which is why we chose to integrate the mission of marine life regeneration into the name of our upcoming camera. 

A recap from one of our earlier articles: according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), the Vaquita Whale is a critically endangered marine species with less than 19 in existence. Their sad story raises awareness about how human interests impact the livelihood of entire species, wiping them out entirely for profit.

We spoke to Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, a marine biologist who works with cetaceans and is a leading expert on the Vaquita. (For those curious: cetaceans is the name of the group of mammals commonly known as whales, dolphins, and porpoises)

Leading Vaquita expert Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho.
Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, a leading expert on the Vaquita

How did you get involved researching the Vaquita?

During this time a lot of things fell into place. While I was doing my Ph.D. thesis on humpback whales, a term paper I wrote on the Vaquita got published in a book. There I realized that there were considerable gaps in knowledge about the Vaquita as well as risk factor assessments. Colleagues of mine also recovered a Vaquita carcass, on which I took samples and did a genetic analysis. The media also generated a lot of public awareness and pressure over the Vaquita to provoke solutions. The Sacramento Bee (a Pulitzer Prize decorated US newspaper), for example, ran a series of articles on the Gulf of California referring to a US federal legislation that mandates embargoes against nations which do not comply with their Marine Mammal Protection Act – Mexico being one of these countries. The last straw was a call I received from our Fisheries Agency, offering me a position as a marine mammal researcher and conservation coordinator. 

Mexico had an excellent record of marine mammal protection and conservation. The very first sanctuary for large whales in the world was in Baja, California. I wanted my Country to continue being a positive reference to the world on the protection of marine mammals.

What led to the extinction of the Vaquita over the last few decades?

For decades, the Vaquita happens to become a bycatch in gillnets. The illegal – yet highly profitable – hunt for the Totoaba, a sciaenid fish whose swim bladder is used in traditional Chinese medicine, has caused the most abrupt population decline of the Vaquita (98.6% since 2011). Despite the ban on fishing Totoaba since 1975, black markets in China and Hong Kong, which are controlled by organized crime, have fueled the practice of illegal fishing.

A fisher can make from $3000 to over $5000 for one kilogram of Totoaba swim bladder. Keep in mind; these fishers do not catch only one fish in their nets. One fisher confessed that he made $116,000 in one day. Once the swim bladder arrives in China, its prices on the black market can skyrocket depending on the quality of the bladder. According to EIA (Environment Investigation Agency), the highest price paid on a bladder auction was around $100.000.

Is the fate of the Vaquita a pattern you see with other endangered species?

Yes, but not as dramatic as with the Vaquita. The IUCN – the world’s leading authority on the conservation status of species and publishes the Red List of Threatened Species – classifies several populations of small cetaceans across all continents as critically endangered or endangered. It’s the same story here: bycatch is the common denominator in almost all cases of these small cetaceans.

What is the outlook for the Vaquita and what can we learn from its case?

I always say that the Vaquita are very resourceful animals. If humans stop killing the Vaquita, their population will thrive again. We have observed healthy animals; mothers and calves pairs. With bycaught Vaquitas, vets determined they were healthy. That means that they eat, produce calves, and move around.

However, if governments don’t do their homework on conservation, any unexpected, single event can quickly drive whole populations to extinction. In the case of the Vaquita, it was the explosion of Totoaba swim bladder demand in China and Hong Kong. If governments had acted 20 years ago, when the evidence showed that bycatch was not sustainable, we would be in a very different situation today.

In essence, if governments keep on pretending that they are saving a species by taking only more comfortable and less controversial measures, and putting off the hard decisions towards fisheries, they can’t prevent the extinction of any species.

How important is the role of data when it comes to help save endangered species?

Data is fundamental to develop extinction risk assessments and to advise decision-makers on which conservation policies are needed. Risks are e.g., habitat loss, fragmentation, and over-harvesting. If there is disagreement over the most significant risk factors, it can hinder management decisions needed to reduce risk. 

As a result of this, It is important to have estimates about distribution, movements, and population sizes, that is, if the population is growing or declining. This demographic data is critical to inform policymakers. Many other data are also relevant, such as genetic data to help distinguish differences within and between populations.

What can I do to help save endangered species?

Public opinion plays a vital role in having a better chance to succeed in conservation actions and to push governments into action. Donations, social media, and expressing public concern is critical. 

You can support organizations such as the National Marine Mammal Foundation who are active in Vaquita research and conversation. You can also have your voice heard through petitions. Maggie Grant, a young girl, started a petition to help the Vaquita.  Also, make sure to join this year’s Vaquita International Day on July 18th, 2020. The event gained a lot of followers worldwide since its inception back in 2013.

Thank you, Lorenzo!


Read about our ongoing projects and news from the diving world.