Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez
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 its small size and beguiling facial markings, vaquita have been in decline for decades, dying by the hundreds in gillnets intended for the commercially valuable totoaba, a fish. 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 vaquita hang in the balance.
Author Brooke Bessesen takes us on a journey to Mexico’s Upper Gulf region to uncover the story. Asking hard questions, she interviewed townspeople, fishermen, politicians, 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 traveled with a team of veterinary experts in a binational effort to capture the remaining ten vaquita and breed them in captivity—the only 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?
1 The Dead Girl
2 Resource Extraction
3 Chasing a Myth
4 Tangled Agendas
5 Death, Drugs, and Accountability
6 Pirates on Patrol
7 Searching for Vaquita
8 Hearing Is Believing
9 Science in the Sea
10 Witnessing Extinction
11 Saving Bigfoot
12 Sending Out and SOS
13 Meet the Totoaba
14 Last‑Ditch Effort
15 Hope is a Life Raft (with a persistent leak)
Notes; Selected Bibliography; Index
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