08.29.2010 The Vaquita porpoise may be living its last days in Mexico's Gulf of California. The demise of the species is imminent, says Chris Johnson, who's spent the last three years on a documentary, "Vaquita - Last Chance for the Desert Porpoise." Johnson hopes the film, available online, will help change the practice of gill netting, which has been wiping out the Vaquita year-by-year, one-by-one. Johnson believes that every Tweet, Facebook share, Digg or green thumb on StumbleUpon about his project could make the difference between life and extinction for the little porpoise.
If Johnson is right, the power of social media will be fully realized. If he's right on another front, the Vaquita will join its cousin, the Baiji, in the history books. The Baiji, also known as the Yangtze River dolphin, lived in the Yangtze River in China. In 2007, it was the first cetacean species to be declared extinct in modern times due to human activities.
Every Vaquita known to exist in the world—around 200— lives in a 40-square-mile area of the northern part of the Gulf of California. Its range is the smallest of any marine mammal. Johnson says gill nets, used primarily to catch shrimp, are the greatest single cause of mortality for the Vaquita, which swim into the nets, become entangled, and drown. Their death is labeled as "bycatch."
Johnson is with earthOCEAN, a media company based in Austrailia. The documentary, "Vaquita - Last Chance for the Desert Porpoise," was filmed as part of an international scientific effort, Expedition Vaquita, which set out in 2008 to find and document the last of the porpoise species.
"We had two goals for the project - the first was to film and photograph the elusive Vaquita porpoise and document the people racing to help it survive," Johnson says.
"The second and most important, was to create a much-needed tool for outreach efforts to communicate scientific findings and conservation recommendations for the Vaquita, while addressing the challenges for people in local communities."
That's where the documentary website, at vaquita.tv, comes in. It includes not only the film, but blogs from various experts.
In September 2010, earthOCEAN plans to distribute free DVDs to the local communities of El Golfo de Santa Clara and San Felipe Mexico, so people with limited internet access can see the film (and hopefully be inspired to help save the porpoise).
The Vaquita documentary was funded by grants from The Ocean Foundation and United States Marine Mammal Commission.
If something's not done in the next few years, experts say the Vaquita will be gone. Is catching shrimp really worth it? What if the Vaquita's plight could become as viral as a chain letter or Antoine Dodson YouTube video?
by Jeff Kart, Bay City, Michigan