The ensuing gold rush was catastrophic for fish and porpoise alike. At first, the totoabas were so plentiful that they could be harpooned from the beach, butchered for their maws—which, when dried, resemble colossal potato chips with unappetizing tendrils—and left to rot. But as the population dwindled, fisherman turned to new methods. Near the Colorado River estuary, they laid gill nets, aquatic weapons of mass destruction designed to hang in the water column and ensnare passing prey. Vaquitas have the fatal misfortune of being nearly the same size as totoabas, so the nets were disastrous for them.
The Mexican government banned totoaba fishing in the 1970s, but the killing never really stopped. By 2017, Rojas-Bracho and Taylor faced a difficult decision. With vaquitas stuck in critical decline, what else could be done? They’d talked about setting up a captive breeding program for years, but the expense and complexity had never seemed worth the risk. Now, though, it was time for a Hail Mary. That summer, Rojas-Bracho’s boss, the Mexican environment minister, gave him the go-ahead to assemble his armada.
The team had four weeks to pull it all off. Early on in the effort, the vaquitas showed a knack for slipping past the researchers’ nets, or just disappearing altogether. Then, with one week remaining, everything changed. “It was a gorgeous day,” Rojas-Bracho recalled, sinking into his sofa. “I was far away from the action, but I could follow by radio. They were saying, ‘We have the vaquita, it’s behaving very nicely, it’s coming to the net. We’ve got it on board, it’s a female, it’s a great animal, it’s very calm.’ ” Rojas-Bracho motored over to take a look. It was the closest he’d ever been to a live vaquita. “I could see my eyes in her eyes,” he said.
As the sun set and the sea darkened, the team introduced the vaquita to its temporary home, el Nido. At first, it swam erratically, taking the measure of its new surroundings. Then it started to adapt. Rojas-Bracho was seated on deck, taking it all in. He heard one of the vets say to the vaquita, “You’re doing well, baby,” so he stood up and walked away to call the environment minister. By the time he hung up, the situation had changed dramatically.
“The animal started behaving wildly, and then it stopped breathing and it started to kind of sink,” he said. “Then there was a decision to take it out of the water and do CPR for three hours until it died, and that was painful. Jesus, it was painful. Seeing the best vets in the world trying to prevent the vaquita from dying, saying, ‘Come on sweetie, you can do it, you can do it,’ it was …” He sighed quietly and lifted his glasses to wipe his eyes.
The scientists’ terrible night wasn’t over. They took the vaquita onshore and performed a necropsy. Rojas-Bracho didn’t sleep. The next morning, everyone agreed to shelve the captivity project.