“The Search for the Desert Porpoise” is a series of short online videos, and blogs from the field. In October 2008, filmmaker Chris Johnson journeyed to the northern gulf of California, Mexico to search for and document the most endangered marine mammal on the planet: Vaquita – the desert porpoise.
With black ringed eyes and a black-lipped smile, vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is the smallest of all cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises). It is also the most endangered. Only an estimated 150 animals remain in a small, isolated pocket of the Sea of Cortez where their numbers continue to decline due to entanglements in fishing nets set by local fishermen to catch shrimp.
With the major threat to the vaquita’s survival identified, the solution seems obvious – simply remove the entangling nets. Unfortunately, if this were done, the implications for local communities, whose livelihoods depend on the shrimp fishery, would be significant. The challenge lies in finding an amicable and cooperative solution that allows porpoises and fishermen to live together and thrive, and to find it in time.
The Program –
- Visits the northern Gulf of California, Mexico and the home of the critically endangered vaquita porpoise.
- Introduces the viewer to the vaquita porpoise in its natural habitat through rarely seen video footage and imagery.
- Includes 14 short blogs and videos that take the viewer onboard both local and international scientific research vessels, inside international conservation meetings and into local communities.
- Explores the impact of the gillnet fishery on the vaquita’s ability to survive.
- Introduces multiple perspectives on the effects, and potential success of vaquita conservation measures.
- Reveals the purpose behind the Mexican government’s multi-million dollar fisheries buyout scheme.
- Explains the complexities involved in vaquita conservation efforts, and explores how these plans will impact local communities who depend on the shrimp gillnet fishery for a living.
- Discovers scientific techniques being used to assess the vaquita population and monitor its ongoing health.
- Explores the issue of extinction and what it means if we lose this species
- Expresses the need for cooperation and community support for management and enforcement to be effective, and questions if this is happening.
Viewing Ideas -
- Explain that whales, dolphins and porpoises belong to the order cetacea, which includes 86 species. Amazingly, this number is still fluctuating as new species are still being discovered. Talk with students about cetaceans and how they come in a range of shapes, sizes and colors, they inhabit oceans, seas and river systems, and are spread across the globe. Each species is perfectly adapted to its aquatic environment. Discuss how porpoises are different from whales and dolphins. Look at a map of the world and help students identify the range and habitat of the vaquita porpoise. Look at the same map and identify the habitat and range of all five porpoise species.
- Divide students into pairs or small groups. Advise them to go online to Whale Trackers and read selected blogs and watch selected videos from ‘Search for the Desert Porpoise’. (Students can be directed to view any, or all videos depending on time frame and depth of focus.) Advise students to consider the following questions:
- Where is the vaquita found, and why is it on the verge of extinction?
- What distinguishes vaquita from other cetaceans?
- What are scientists finding out that may help save the species?
- What are governments doing to try and save vaquita?
- What are the positives and negatives of the fisheries buyout scheme?
- Can an agreement be reached that benefits all stakeholders?
- How important is it to include and take care of local communities when a species is on the brink of extinction?
- What lessons can be learned for the future of marine conservation in Mexico, and for similar issues worldwide?
- Begin by giving students five minutes to compare and discuss their views among the group. Give students a brief overview of the recent extinction of the baiji (Yangtze River Dolphin).
- Class discussion. Ask students how they feel about extinction. What does it mean to them personally, and how does it detract from the richness of our planet?
- How do human values play a role in extinction?
- Should we care about an animal that most of us have never heard of, let alone seen?
- The vaquita is the unintended bycatch of fishers simply trying to feed their families. Are they at fault?
- How do we value the survival of a species versus the livelihood of local communities?
- Should fishers be forced to change jobs, and should they be offered viable alternatives?
- How can we address the growing problem of fisheries/cetacean interactions across the world’s oceans as human populations increase, and the demand for seafood continues to grow?
- Does creating laws do enough to protect endangered species? What else is needed?
- Should the consumer bear some responsibility for creating the demand for fisheries that kill non-target marine species?
Classroom Activity –
Utilize information obtained from the blog series ‘ExpeditionVaquita’, from class discussion and from online research into the extinction of the baiji on Whale Trackers. Create a comparison chart/poster to address the following critical question – ‘The baiji is extinct, will vaquita follow? Students can work in pairs or small groups.
- Computer (Depending on accessibility, students can work independently, in pairs or groups.)
- Internet access
- Vaquita Factsheet
- Porpoise Factsheet
- Baiji factsheet
- Wake of the Baiji video
- Guest speaker
- Understanding cetaceans and their habitat helps scientists and policy makers organize research and conservation programs. Sometimes conservation efforts conflict with livelihoods, job security and the economic pursuits of governments. In this activity students are to undertake a comparative study between two species, one is recently extinct, the other on the verge of extinction.
- Depending on access to computers, organize students into groups.
- Have students search online on Whale Trackers for information about the baiji and the vaquita.
- Instruct students to thoroughly research and create a single list of all the factors that contributed, and in the case of the vaquita, are still contributing to their demise. Depending on the group, you may want to give them some hints: (Ship traffic, Collisions, noise pollution, chemical pollution, human population nearby, entanglement in fishing gear.)
- Students are to also identify protection measures put in place for both species, as well as science, education and investment efforts in conservation.
- From their list, students are to identify the threats attributed to each species individually, and then identify the threats they have in common.
- By comparing the threats to both species, students are to determine the lessons learned from the loss of the baiji, and how such lessons may be used to help save the vaquita.
- Students will analyze lessons learned from the loss of the biaji, and how they could be utilized to save the vaquita.
- Students are to present their chart/poster to the group.
- Possible points to highlight, discuss and reinforce at the end of activity include:
- Learning from our failure
- Laws alone are insufficient
- Enforcement is critical
- Prioritize threats, then act.
- Education – If people don’t know, they cannot care
- Extinction can happen quickly
- People are both the problem and the solution.
(NOTE: If possible, a guest speaker from the field of ocean/cetacean research will give students further insight and access to this field of science and conservation)
Students use what they learned about the vaquita in Mexico as a catalyst for a comparative study between two species related to the issue of extinction. Students see the connectedness between species survival and human induced pressures. They will explore our responsibilities to other life on this planet, and the role of human values.
This activity gives students a real worldview of extinction, its causes, its implications and most importantly, what can be done to prevent it. It challenges students to explore their own values in regard to the natural world, and to question how human population growth is shaping life on this planet. They will also assess the relevance of science and conservation and consider its applications closer to home.
The ‘Expedition Vaquita’ activity program can be directed and adapted to a range of year levels from Grades 7-12 science, environmental education, political science, and ICT subject areas.
Lateral thinking allows activities encompassing whales, dolphins and porpoises collectively called cetaceans, to link into a wide range of secondary curriculum areas. An awareness of other animals, particularly the study of charismatic keynote species, is crucial for students to learn about the issues involved in conservation and how the choices we make affect the world around us. Learning about the lives of other animals changes our ‘world view’, fosters a sense of responsibility and encourages action. The topic of cetaceans fits most obviously into the science learning area. However, there is ample opportunity to incorporate cetaceans into the geography, English and art frameworks.
Related Resources –
For more information about what you can do to help, look at the following links:
- “Expedition Vaquita” Blog on Whale Trackers – Follow documentary filmmaker Chris Johnson as he travels to the northern gulf to Calfornia to search for the Vaquita. (October-November 2008)
- How now, little cow? Natural History Magazine – http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1134/is_6_116/ai_n27283540
- Vaquita Porpoise, and a Way of Life, Face Extinction- http://www.nytimes.com/2007/02/13/world/americas/13dolphin.html
- Saving the Vaquita: Immediate Action, Not More Data. Jaramillo-Legorreta et al., 2007. http://www.vaquita.org/PDF%20Files/Jaramillo_et_al_2007_Conservation_Biology%5B1%5D.pdf
- Conservation of the Vaquita (Phocoena sinus). Rojas-Bracho et al., 2006. http://www.vaquita.org/PDF%20Files/Rojas Bracho%20et%20al.,%202006%20(MMMR).pdf
- Vaquita Bycatch in Mexico’s Artisanal Fisheries: Driving a Small Population to Extinction. D’Agrosa et al., 2000. http://www.vaquita.org/PDF%20Files/D%27Agrosa%20et%20al.,%202000%20(CB).pdf
Related Websites -
- Vaquita Marina – www.vaquitamarina.org – A resource containing science and conservation efforts related to vaquita in English and Spanish.
- CEDO – www.cedointercultural.org – CEDO work to advance and share knowledge about the Northern Gulf of California and surrounding Sonoran Desert and to promote the conservation and sustainable use of its natural and cultural resources.
- NRDC – www.savebiogems.org/uppergulf/ – The Natural Resources Defense Council works to protect wildlife and wild places and to ensure a healthy environment for all life on earth. With a focus on the America’s, NRDC is targeting the upper Gulf of California as part of its ‘BioGems’ campaign.
- Marine Stewartship Council – www.msc.org – The MSC’s fishery certification program and seafood eco-label recognize and reward sustainable fishing. They are a global organization working with fisheries, seafood companies, scientists, conservation groups and the public to promote the best environmental choice in seafood around the world.
- World Conservation Union (IUCN) – www.iucn.org / www.iucnredlist.org – IUCN, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, helps the world find pragmatic solutions to our most pressing environment and development challenges. It supports scientific research, manages field projects all over the world and brings governments, non-government organizations, United Nations agencies, companies and local communities together to develop and implement policy, laws and best practice
- Internatioal Whaling Commission (IWC) – www.iwcoffice.org – IWC was set up under the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling in Washington DC on 2 December 1946. It is most famous for implementing an international moratorium on all commercial whaling after whale populations were decimated by decades of unsustainable hunting.
References and Acknowledgments:
- Rojas-Bracho, L., Reeves, R.R., Jaramillo-Legorreta, A. & Taylor, B.L. (2007). Phocoena sinus. 2007 IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN 2007.
- Jefferson, T. Webber, M. Pitman, R. (2008). Marine Mammals of the World – A Comprehensive Guide to their Identification. Elsevier, UK.
- Reeves, R. Stewart, B. Clapham, P. Powell, J. (2002). Guide to Marine Mammals of the World. Knopf Inc. NY.
Classroom Activity Author
Genevieve Johnson has taught High school and middle school students in the area of Environmental Education for over 12 years. She has a masters degree in Science Communication, and spent five years as a cetacean field researcher on an around the world science and education expedition. As well as teaching in a classroom, Genevieve written and delivered multiple programs related to marine life and sustainability, designing curriculum and linking education programs with students around the globe.