Vaquita – Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez by Brooke Bessesen

Why there are fewer and fewer vaquitas in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico? And what does the decreasing number of vaquitas has to do with totoabas - a species of fish threatened with extinction? Both species are in the middle of a difficult and complex situation. The author Brooke Bessesen attempts to explain in her book "Vaquita - Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez" why the vaquitas are at risk of extinction, and simultaneously, calls attention to a current and widespread event - the extinction of species!


Title: Vaquita - Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez
Author: Brooke Bessesen
Imprint: Island Press
Length: 318 Seiten
Published: 2018
Language: Englisch


In 2006, vaquita, a diminutive porpoise making its home in the Upper Gulf of California, inherited the dubious title of world’s most endangered marine mammal. Nicknamed “panda of the sea” for their small size and beguiling facial markings, vaquitas have been in decline for decades, dying by the hundreds in gillnets intended for commercially valuable fish, as well as for an endangered fish called totoaba. When international crime cartels discovered a lucrative trade in the swim bladders of totoaba, illegal gillnetting went rampant, and now the lives of the few remaining vaquitas hang in the balance.

Author Brooke Bessesen takes us on a journey to Mexico’s Upper Gulf region to uncover the story. She interviewed townspeople, fishermen, scientists, and activists, teasing apart a complex story filled with villains and heroes, a story whose outcome is unclear. When diplomatic and political efforts to save the little porpoise failed, Bessesen followed a team of veterinary experts in a binational effort to capture the last remaining vaquitas and breed them in captivity - the best hope for their survival. In this fast-paced, soul-searing tale, she learned that there are no easy answers when extinction is profitable.

Whether the rescue attempt succeeds or fails, the world must ask itself hard questions. When vaquita and the totoaba are gone, the black market will turn to the next vulnerable species. What will we do then?

Thoughts about the book

A few years ago I listened to a presentation about lemurs on Madagaskar at an international and world renowned institution where I came upon the term "evolutionary extinct". The presentation was about lemurs threatened with extinction. The scientist who held that presentation was a geneticist and studied the species delimitation of a lemur genus. This knowledge would help pushing forward the conservation of all the lemur species of that genus.

Actually a good and meaningful study, right?


The scientist continued with her presentation and talked about how they had to collect the biological material (here: tissue samples of the ear). During that procedure the scientists had to anaesthetize the lemurs. The anesthesia was necessary to collect these tissue samples. However, according to the words of the scientist, it happened during the collection procedure that a lemur had not woken up anymore. I asked myself: "Why do they conduct such a genetic study with these critically endangered lemurs?". Of course, her audience reacted to her stories by asking questions. Her opinion was that if these lemur species become extinct, it wouldn't have been her fault, as these lemur species would have gone extinct anyway even if she wouldn't have taken the tissue samples. According to her opinion at that time there is little that can be done for a species that is evolutionary already extinct.

Although I listened to that presentation about ten years ago, I still can remember her words very well.

It was hard for my to understand this way of thinking.

When I was reading "Vaquita - Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez" by Brooke Bessesen I remembered that presentation, as the words "evolutionary extinct" fell in the story of the book.

Vaquitas are like many lemur species critically endangered and their number on our planet is low. According to the IUCN there are less than 20 vaquitas left in the wild (June 2021)! During the 90s there were still between 500 and 600 individuals in the waters of the Gulf of Cortez in Mexico. In 2016 the population was estimated to be lower than 60 vaquitas.

But why did the number of vaquitas decrease so dramatically?

Not forgetting all this happened despite the species conservation measures enacted by politicians!

The author Brooke Bessesen tries to disentangle this complicated situation.

The reader will get to know more about local fishing methods and how these are connected to the decreasing number of vaquitas. The author also tries to explain the gradual disappearance of another species in the Sea of Cortez, a fish, the totoaba, and how its disappearance is connected to the decreasing number of vaquitas.

Why is it so difficult to protect the vaquitas and the totoaba in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico?

That is one of the central questions in the book the author tries to answer.

I wanted to read this book about the vaquita, because I had already heard about its plight in the news. I wanted to know more about its story, as what happens with the vaquita right now happens similarly elsewhere with another species.

Evolutionary extinct or not and as hopeless the situation of the vaquita might appear, there are still people who do not want to accept the extinction of these vaquitas and continue to fight for their continuing existence.

That's why I think this book is so important and I hope many people will read this story. I'm far away from Mexico. You might be as well far away. However, the disappearance of a species happens everywhere - be it mammals, birds, amphibians, insects, and so on. And sadly, in most (or all?) cases humans play a central role in the extinction of a species...


Disturbing. Heartbreaking. And sensitively written. Please read and tell other people about the vaquitas, as there are only few of them left on our planet!

Have you already known about the vaquitas from the news? Or do you know a similar story about a critically endangered species? Please leave a comment and tell me more about it!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Ich habe die Datenschutzerklärung zur Kenntnis genommen. Ich stimme zu, dass meine Angaben zur Kontaktaufnahme und für Rückfragen dauerhaft gespeichert werden. // I have read the Privacy Policy and accept its terms and conditions. I agree that my contact details will be stored permanently for queries.