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The Dead Girl
Don't be nervous. It's safe," Gustavo offered preemptively as we pulled into a dirt lot facing the dark entrance of a brown concrete building. The structure had the angular foreboding of an abandoned prison, with open, rusty-barred windows jutting evenly along the front. Not one to worry, I hadn't been a bit nervous until Gustavo made this statement, which now had me attentive to deep shadows cast by the cool evening light. Still, I followed him inside.
Eyes adjusting, I scanned a panorama of dilapidated brick and tile stalls. Se renta o vende read sloppy strokes of graffiti. For rent or sale. As Gustavo's stocky silhouette sidestepped piles of rubble, his flip-flops echoed down spoked halls, which stretched into the building's blackest recesses.
I had met Gustavo Cárdenas Hinojosa, a thirty-something scientist with INECC (pronounced EE-nek), Mexico's National Institute of Ecology and Climate Change, just twenty minutes earlier, at five o'clock at the Hotel Los Angeles as planned. We had fumbled through our initial greeting, each trying on a language we hadn't worn in a while — my Spanish, his English. His English fit better, so we stuck with that.
I'd made my first ever trip from Arizona to San Felipe, Mexico — a six-hour drive — to ask a single question: why was the world's most critically endangered marine mammal still dying in gillnets when gillnets were supposedly outlawed? Gustavo, field coordinator for INECC's vaquita acoustics study, had generously driven over from Ensenada to introduce me to some people who might offer insight, starting with a well-known fisherman named Javier Valverde.
Gustavo and I quickly checked into the hotel, a new kelly-green monolith at the edge of town. After dumping our bags in two convenient first-floor rooms, we hopped into his red truck, a Ford Ranger that looked to be a multitour veteran of fieldwork. Five minutes later, I was being ushered down this dusty corridor.
A right. A left. Twenty paces forward.
Like the warm glow of a farmhouse on a dark night, we came upon a single, brightly lit window. In such a gloomy edifice it was strange to find a satellite office for CONANP, Mexico's National Commission of Natural Protected Areas. It was a respite of pale yellow walls and encouraging environmental posters. As Gustavo directed me through the door, a middle-aged man wearing a viva la vaquita T-shirt stepped forward to say hello. Paco Valverde is a biologist and administrator for CONANP and is Javier's son.
Paco offered me a friendly smile, but his features were lined with stress, and after shaking my hand, he turned to Gustavo and delivered some piece of terrible news in such rapid-fire Spanish that I was left struggling to interpret their anxious expressions. Several minutes passed before I could even begin to grasp the situation, and it wasn't until Paco clicked through gruesome images on his computer screen that the issue became clear.
A vaquita had washed up on the beach — dead — just that morning. It was March 15, 2016. Gustavo's arms folded across his body as if holding something fragile together. It was the second vaquita corpse in eleven days; a male had been found floating offshore on March 4.
The vaquita, scientifically named Phocoena sinus, is the world's tiniest cetacean, a stout, glossy-skinned porpoise whose entire frame, rostrum to fluke, spans a mere five feet and tips the scale at just ninety-five pounds. On the whole planet, there is but one population of vaquitas, and that population, living in the Upper Gulf of California, has endured continual decline since the early 1940s. A prestigious group of scientists conducted a population survey in the fall of 2015. Six months later, they would announce their unfavorable findings: fewer than sixty vaquitas were left on the planet.
Chris Snyder, a Flagstaff, Arizona, transplant, had discovered the dead vaquita during her morning walk. Chris lives in an expat community called El Dorado Ranch, seven miles north of San Felipe. The porpoise was on the beach "in front of EDR golf course," she wrote in a 10:37 a.m. Facebook post along with a photo of the body — bruised and bloated skin beginning to tear, empty eye sockets fixed and vacant. Her husband, Tom Gorman, deciding that more images were needed, had hurried back down to the body and loaded several more shots to Facebook. One showed a hungry turkey vulture lurching like a Western movie character over purple flesh.
It was the Snyder-Gorman Facebook photos that first alerted authorities to the dead cetacean and set off the firestorm of official calls, texts, photos, and reports. Paco showed Gustavo video he had taken of the corpse being loaded onto the bed of a truck for transport to Mexicali. I fretfully snatched at any Spanish words I could recognize and pieced together the basics. Despite significant decomposition, they identified the victim as a female, 1.3 meters long (about fifty-one inches). Every loss bodes poorly for the survival of the species. But with so few vaquitas remaining, I knew the forfeiture of a female's breeding potential was a sharp twist of the knife.
As Paco spoke, Gustavo texted wildly on his cell phone, and I stood by, trying to follow the narrative. I asked a few questions, but it was obvious that these men had no attention for my inquiries. Neither seemed to possess the mind power for a second language at such an upsetting time, and I felt foolish that my crash course in refresher Spanish had failed to take. The stress was palpable, so I slipped into an adjoining room to give them some space. My heart ached for Gustavo and Paco, but I could not console them. It was like I'd accidentally stumbled into the private funeral of someone famous but whom I did not personally know. I was an interloper, an observer, a distraction.
It wouldn't be until a couple weeks later, in a moment of deep personal contemplation, that the image of that dead vaquita would flood back to my mind. With my heart wide open, I saw her, really saw her, not as one of a disappearing population but as a single, distinct individual — a daughter, a sister perhaps — who lived freely and died tragically. I imagined her final moments: the terrified thrashing, the tangle of rope, holding her breath against the murky midnight water for countless frantic seconds until at last her burning lungs insisted on one final inhale.
In my mind, her little frame cast out on that isolated beach transformed into the body of a young girl dumped by the side of the road outside a rural town.
She'd been murdered. And everybody knew who'd done it.
There are always clues at a crime scene. In this case, there were eight totoaba carcasses strewn about on the sand.
* * *
Totoaba is a fish. It also is endemic to the Gulf of California and is also listed as critically endangered. Totoaba macdonaldi is the largest member of the Sciaenidae family. Sciaenids are commonly called drum fish, or croakers, because they can produce a thrumming sound by vibrating special muscles against an internal gas-filled organ — the swim bladder — which regulates buoyancy and helps the fish go up and down in the water column.
Totoaba (pronounced toe-TWA-buh) are now being heavily poached for their swim bladders, called buches in Spanish.
And what are those buches used for? For soup.
The swim bladder, called fish maw in Asia, is boiled into a Chinese soup that is coveted for purported curative powers, including improved skin complexion and circulation. Although such remedial properties remain unsubstantiated, the feeding frenzy continues. Since 2012, hundreds upon hundreds of buches have been smuggled and sold in what has become a multibillion-dollar international black market for wildlife products.
China's main source of fish maw — the Chinese bahaba, another drum fish — has all but disappeared. Bahaba taipingensis once resided in great numbers along the coast of the China Sea, from Shanghai south to Hong Kong. With the bahaba completely fished out and nearing extinction, however, the cost of a bahaba swim bladder rocketed to astronomical heights, so Chinese marketeers redirected their interests to extract Mexican totoaba from the northern half of the Gulf of California. Both are large and long-lived sciaenids, and their life cycles and bladders are very similar.
It is not the first time China has promoted poaching. The country is notorious for trafficking wildlife parts, and its unrelenting appetite for endangered species poses a catastrophic threat to many beloved animals on the threshold of extinction.
Rhino horn, tiger bone, pangolin scales, totoaba bladder. Each attracts its own cast of assassins.
For the right price, local poachers are always willing to take a risk, especially in countries like Mexico where penalties are rare. (Totoaba poaching has not been a felony, and arrested parties are typically freed within a couple of days.) Of course, fishermen who poach buches, known as bucheros, are not selling directly to China. Chinese and Mexican mafias are said to have joined forces to traffic the "aquatic cocaine"; with similar pound-for-pound profits, bladders really are as lucrative as drugs.
Unlike powdery and flowery drugs that are measured only by weight, buches are also valued by size. Size matters, a lot. The larger, thinner-walled bladder of the male totoaba is particularly valued. And the older the fish, the bigger the buche. The more perceived strength and vitality, the higher the price.
As the black market booms, fishermen rush to the water like gold miners, tossing gillnets to collect their claim. Some bucheros even "clone" their pangas, or skiffs, painting the same number on both hulls to secretly run two boats under one permit. In the dark of night — or worse, under the guise of catching legal species — local fishermen capture football-player-sized totoaba and quickly carve out their buches. Those buches are then dried for transport.
A well-connected cartel syndicate is said to smuggle the contraband across international borders and distribute it in China or to Chinese restaurants in the United States. As China's economy grows stronger, there are more wealthy people who can afford gastronomic luxuries, and dried swim bladders are said to be standard fare at Hong Kong markets and openly auctioned in China. The illegal commodity is even sold through online sources like Alibaba.
Mexico blames China for not coming down hard enough on the sale of totoaba parts. China blames Mexico for allowing fishermen to poach the animals in the first place. They're both right. It's a bit like drugs. Countries that produce the merchandise must be held accountable, but countries that consume the imports are also culpable. Government leaders, fishermen, smugglers, bosses, buyers, restaurateurs, diners, and, of course, corrupt law enforcement officers are all part of the organized criminal chain.
To date, China doesn't seem fully committed to destroying a profitable business model, and Mexico doesn't seem fully committed to abolishing loopholes for poaching. Meanwhile, the illegal industry gains traction.
Unfortunately, totoaba is not the only critically endangered animal to be caught up in this international scandal. In death, vaquita is totoaba's mammalian twin. Both large, lovely, silvery imperiled species fall victim to the same bucheros. The gillnets deployed to capture totoaba, left adrift in the water column, are either indistinguishable or confusing to vaquitas' sensitive sonar. When the tiny porpoises accidentally hit the nets and catch a fin or fluke, they panic and roll themselves into inescapable knots. As air-breathing mammals like us, they cannot survive indefinitely beneath the sea surface and soon succumb to asphyxiation.
Gillnets — locally called chinchorros or redes de enmalle — have been the mainstay of fishing in the Upper Gulf since the 1940s. The contraption is simple: two ropes with netting strung between. Buoys tethered to the upper rope act as floats and markers, and lead weights attached to the bottom rope stretch and shape the net. Once deployed, the apparatus may remain unattended for many hours, sometimes days, anchored to the bottom or adrift in the current. Although gillnets are designed to snag the gills of particular species — the mesh size is selected to fit the target fish's head — they inevitably capture nontarget species as well.
It's called bycatch.
Bycatch is the incidental capture of nontarget species, and some researchers estimate that bycatch of nets, longlines, and trawls accounts for up to 40 percent of total global catch. In other words, for every one hundred pounds of targeted fish hauled in and sold at market worldwide, forty pounds of nontarget animals — rays, sharks, seahorses, marine birds, corals, crabs, octopus, sea turtles, seals, and cetaceans — may be dumped, dead or dying, back into the sea. That adds up to sixty-three billion pounds per year.
Collateral damage is a pitiful part of the food industry that most of us don't want to look at. Bycatch is a sobering problem in every ocean around the world. Vaquitas, however, fall victim in just a single location, the only place the species has ever existed: a pinpoint spot on the map of Mexico.
Baja California is Earth's second-longest peninsula behind the Malay Peninsula of Southeast Asia. This skinny strip of land, like an old man's finger pointing toward Argentina, hugs a bio-rich aquatic environment against the continental mainland. Many geographically challenged people are confused by the different names given to the seven-hundred-mile-long embayment. Americans typically call it the Gulf of California; Spaniards call it the Sea of Cortés. Its original moniker — the Vermilion Sea — dates to 1539. Some historic references dub it the Red Sea. Perhaps Jacques Cousteau was the most insightful when he branded it "the aquarium of the world" because some six thousand animal species have already been recorded in its boundaries.
In the highest reaches of the northern Gulf of California exists one of the most productive coastal marine habitats in the world. Characterized by brackish bays and marshes, the Colorado River delta region supports an array of endemic species and migratory birds. It is there in the Upper Gulf — locally called Alto Golfo — that the rarest member of the whale clade resides.
La vaquita marina is uniquely adapted to eat small bottom-feeding fish and squid in the shallow, silt-laden waters of Alto Golfo. Of the sixty-eight thousand square miles of aquatic habitat provided by the lengthy Gulf of California, this pint-sized porpoise with enigmatic dark-ringed eyes and black-lined lips that seem curved into a perpetual smile inhabits only about fourteen hundred square miles. Indeed, this dusky gray cetacean has the most limited range of any marine mammal.
More than fifteen hundred fishermen earn their living in and around vaquita habitat. Most hail from one of three fishing villages: San Felipe in the Mexican state of Baja California, El Golfo de Santa Clara just east of the Colorado River delta in the state of Sonora, or, ninety-three miles south from there, Puerto Peñasco, better known to Americans as Rocky Point. Nearly every fisherman in the Upper Gulf owns a gillnet, and many are directly or indirectly involved with the totoaba trade. A satellite image taken in December 2014 shows almost one hundred pangas engaged in illegal fishing activities.
In 2015, responding to rampant poaching and alarming vaquita-mortality statistics, the Mexican government took unprecedented action. President Enrique Peña Nieto traveled twelve hundred miles from his capitol building in Mexico City to the sandy pueblo of San Felipe; it was the first presidential visit there in history. On April 16, he declared a two-year emergency gillnet ban across vaquita habitat. Permits for all gillnet fisheries, Peña Nieto announced, were to be placed on hold until the spring of 2017, while a multiple-million-dollar compensation program would pay fishermen for lost income.
The president's presence in San Felipe implied real and urgent concern. Both vaquita and totoaba are endemic species, unique to Mexican waters and recognized as part of Mexico's rich biological heritage. Furthermore, the vaquita is actually the country's national marine mammal. No respectable leader wants to be accountable for losing a national treasure. It's bad for business.
Indeed, a 2015 press release from the Center for Biological Diversity stated, "The [president's gillnet] ban announcement came in response to growing international attention and outrage over the plight of the vaquita, including calls for trade sanctions against Mexico and a possible boycott of Mexican shrimp."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Vaquita"
Copyright © 2018 Brooke Bessesen.
Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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