Vaquita – Last Chance for the Desert Porpoise

Can Social Media Save a Species?

Can social media help save the Vaquita – an animal most people have probably never heard of and will never see in the wild?

Can Social Media Save a Species?
September 12th, 2010 by

Vaquita is an animal most people have probably never heard of, let alone seen in the wild. My objective with this documentary and multimedia project is to make the story of vaquita known to as many people as possible.

Vaquita is the smallest of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) in the world and inhabits a very tiny 40 square mile region of sea in the Upper Gulf of California, Mexico. They are found nowhere else in the world.

Baiji (Yangtze River Dolphin).

To scientists, Vaquita is a critically endangered animal. Their numbers are now so low, that before we know it, they feel it could join the fate of the Baiji – a river dolphin in China that lived only in the Yangtze river. In 2007, Baiji was declared extinct as a result of increased human activity and overfishing.

To fishermen, vaquita is a nuisance to the local fishing industry and their families. Most have never seen a vaquita alive, or even want to. Catching a vaquita in a gillnet leads to too much attention and hassle. In 2007, the ‘alternative livelihoods program’ commenced, led by government agencies to “buy-out” the nets and boats of all local fishermen, and supply them with new careers.

A Vaquita entangled in a gillnet. Illustration by Uko Gorter

But, this did not mean they were going to trade in nets and start porpoise watching trips for tourists. Vaquita is extremely shy and very wary of boats. They are so small that you have to be very lucky to see them on on the calmest of calm days at sea. And, if you do see them, it is a short puff followed by brief glimpse of a dorsal fin, and then nothing.

Alternative livelihoods is a fairly loose term for the program. Eco-tourism was promoted as one answer. However, tourism would have to increase substantially for it to replace fishing as the main economic staple for the region. The upper gulf is an adventurous place to travel to, not quite disneyland for the kids with military checkpoints outside of each town, and still very rough around the edges.

To conservationists, vaquita is a puzzle. On paper it should be relatively easy to save the species from rapid decline, after all, there is only one major problem scientists have identified as the main culprit for their decline – gillnets. So, it should be easy to buy out the fishermen and give them new lives away from the sea. But for the older generation of fishermen, this is not so simple. Also, not all fishermen own their fishing permits, so buying removing nets and licenses is not necessarily a fair trade for everyone in the area.

Processing shrimp in Santa Clara.

The issue is that shrimp is the “pink gold” of the upper gulf, and the public demand it on both sides of the border. Some of the blue shrimp caught in gillnets is consumed locally, but most is shipped to the United States for consumption in high-end restaurants.

To me, vaquita is a marine jewel, a secretive creature that maybe people are not supposed to know much about. However, I fear its story is destined to be repeated around the world over coming years as cetacean populations are declining due to entanglements in nets. If some type of balance cannot be found in the upper gulf, this small, sleek, and gorgeous animal, the atypical “little guy” with no voice in the debate, has very little time and hope. Its fate will be decided by us, whether it likes it or not.

A Vaquita porpoise photographed on October 19, 2008.

Biologist Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho has studied vaquita for years and states in the documentary – “this is Mexico’s species…it is our legacy for marine mammals worldwide. We have to protect it.

True, it is a signature to an area rich in marine biodiversity in a sea Jacques Cousteau once referred to as the “ocean’s aquarium”. The Gulf of California is one of my favorite places in the world.

The gulf is home to the world’s biggest animal, the enormous blue whale. Large populations of fin, sei and sperm whales also plow its depths, pods of common dolphins charge about in schools that number in the thousands and multitudes of breeding seabirds crowd together on cactus studded islets. The stark contrast between the relatively barren terrestrial landscape and the lush marine seascape is a defining paradox evident everywhere in the gulf. It is one of Earth’s most diverse and exquisite marine habitats.

It was a perfectly still hot dry morning when I first encountered this mythical marine mammal. I was filming and photographing Expedition Vaquita – a mulltinational scientific expedition that spent two months in the upper gulf with the aim of estimating the already fragile population.

NOAA RV David Starr Jordan

I was onboard the NOAA research vessel David Starr Jordan, filming interviews with scientists including Barb Taylor, Jay Barlow and Bob Pitman. All had been involved in the expedition in 2006 that declared the baiji in china “functionally extinct”. They had seen this before and would do anything possible to ensure this was not repeated. Their conviction was infectious. When the first sightings of vaquita occurred on the Jordan, I quickly transferred to a smaller boat with Tom Jefferson to try to get as close as possible.

A few hours later, I found myself with camera in hand, face to face with vaquita. Actually we sighted a few in the distance, so I took up my favorite position on the bow of the boat to get the best coverage. Moments later two vaquita danced in the distance and circled quickly towards the boat diving under the bow as I gracefully attempted to follow their path. So small and so quick, it was difficult to predict where they would come up to breathe and one of the most difficult animals I have ever filmed.

Researchers Paula Olson and Tom Jefferson photographing vaquita, 2008.

NOAA scientist Greg Silber was next to me during the sighting. He had done his PhD years ago on vaquita, and his photos were the first record of live vaquita prior to this day. Greg turned to me afterwards and said – “You are damn lucky, you know that, don’t you?” It was a grand understatement to even classify this encounter as rare. Many people had doubts we could even find vaquita, let alone get close enough to photograph it.

The photos and footage swept around the globe through various print and online media outlets generating a slight ‘buzz’ that has been since forgotten. But, there is much more to this story than just a chance encounter recorded in digital memory.

The Upper Gulf is full of stories of changing lives in communities with socio-economic challenges and severe environmental impact – past and present. I wanted to record the story of the people who live there, and who will decide whether or not vaquita survives – because in the end it will not be conservation groups or science who decides.

The government can help tremendously, but the upper gulf is a place that local fishermen Miguel Reyes France states in the documentary – “Santa Clara is the town with the most problems regarding legality.” The drug trade is an influential factor in this area that few wanted to talk about on camera.

During the journey documenting the story, I felt as if I was beginning to understand the complexity, yet the simplicity of what was at stake. To some, there was no easy fix, or short term solution, or was there?

A fisherman in Santa Clara, Mexico

I felt if all three sides of the debate could discuss in one place, issues about the vaquita that in the past were inhibiting the conservation of the species and proper implementation of the fisheries buyout program, then maybe, there could be chance. The success of the two are very intertwined.

Over the next year I tried to convince people that there still was a story to be told. The purpose would be to take a critical (and hopefully balanced) look at the vaquita story and make it freely available to people in the quickest way possible – online.

So I have recorded and edited a story captured over three years, to get it out to the public. The videos are meant to be a reflection of people who have a stake in vaquita – whether they are trying to save it, or their lives are influenced by it.

However, I felt that telling the story through my perspective was only part of it. Techniques in traditional media would serve as a foundation and starting point to the story. There needed to be a place where people could learn about and have a conversation about Vaquita.

Images of dead vaquita - Omar Vidal

The story could not be focused only on the past, but somehow be in the present. Currently social media and blogs are the most effective ways to tell a story and listen to feeback in way that gives a powerful, dynamic voice to people involved the vaquita science, conservation, and members of local communities in the upper gulf with the potential for an international audience.

So, was born – a hybrid online documentary and social media website.
It is the hope to let anyone who has a “stake” in vaquita story in the region – fishermen, scientists, conservations, students, shrimp buyers, shrimp consumers, and tourists, to participate in a way and measure the issues in real time.

Many people ask me what I feel the solution for Vaquita. I feel that leadership has to come from within local communities, and the science has presented a very credible case. In ten years, the entire population of vaquita has declined over 56%. This is a classic story of time running out, and there are key decisions in our hands that have to be made.

Fisherman launching a panga into the water.

Will the buyout work? I am not sure and personally do not feel optimistic about it. It is amazing that the Mexican government gave it a go, backed by so much funding. But, it has been one big experiment with no fallback plan especially when a fishermen’s new business fails. I feel this is influencing fishermen who were on the fence about joining the program, and we are seeing its popularity decline rapidly.

According to recent information from the Mexican government, for the first time in four years, no one is participating in the fisheries buyout program. However, the popularity of the “rent-out”, being paid a sum to not fishing in an area already protected by law, is on the rise. It seems a bit ridiculous to pay people to stay out of a marine protected area that already bans gillnets. This type of conservation is not sustainable at all and sends the wrong message.

Alejandro Robles with AGS members

A year ago, I revisited Santa Clara, travelling with Alejandro Robles a conservationist with over 35 years experience working in the upper gulf. He showed me a new office that had just opened – symbolized by the drying paint on the walls. Alto Golfo Sustenable, an NGO started to be a bridge between industry groups, local NGOs and fishermen, was now open and next door to the local fisheries office. A few computers with internet access was installed with free access for people in Santa Clara. This is the starting point for a communication revolution. There is how and where we can hear how local communities. I hope people do join in the debate.

Pangas in the street in Santa Clara

The website will give people a chance to mobilize and communicate about issues of vaquita in a way that were previous not possible. However in Santa Clara there is not a local Starbucks with free wifi for people to surf the web. That is why we are distributing DVDs of the documentary for free in spanish and english in late September, before fishing season starts, so people can watch it and decide for themselve, to participate of not.

So, can social media really save a species like Vaquita?

Here are a couple of ways social media will help –

  • Scientists, conservation groups, and local community members join the debate online which will help break down barriers to help better manage and adapt the conservation programs in place. This way, the information flow can increase and be beneficial to all sides. In the end, this could help save vaquita and help local communities.
  • Visitors of the site, share the videos with your friends, tell people about vaquita and the website, that is the first step. Not many people outside of the marine conservation community know about the animal so people cannot care about something they do not know about. The film is broken up into seven shorts in order to make it more “web-friendly” so it can be shared.

If you have not watched the entire film, make sure to watch the chapter entitled “The Future“.

In many ways, it is in your hands to change “the future” for vaquita. Why not give it a go?

About Chris Johnson

Chris Johnson has written 34 post in this blog.

A filmmaker, photographer and digital producer based in Melbourne Australia.

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21 Sep 2010 by Stephen Joyce

Interesting article Chris. What a story you present. I am skeptical about social media though. Do you really think it can save species, just by posting on facebook and twitter? Is this too hopeful?

9 Oct 2010 by Chris Johnson

Thanks Stephen. Will social media help? I think it will because it provides people to the opportunity who have never heard of the Vaquita to learn about the animal and why it is in trouble. Will social media help save vaquita? You can be part of helping!

27 Jan 2011 by Sibylle

Hi Chris
yes, social media and the internet spreads the word, gets people interested, involved, gets them caring and helping. How can they care if they don’t know? The internet spreads the word. I’m a firm believer! And I’m doing the same thing for snow leopards. When people learn about this beautiful animal, they will often do something. PS I know your friend Howie, he loves snow leopards too.

8 Nov 2012 by Allen Riedel

I am a teacher and outdoor author. I am incredibly interested in the vaquita and plan to do my part to spread the news of this wonderful creature as far and wide as I can. I want to help. Saving the vaquita is now a cause of mine.


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