In my final blog about “Expedition Vaquita”, I would like to address the next generation – the young people of the upper gulf. Over past weeks, I conducted interviews with a myriad of people involved in the vaquita issue; scientists, managers, and conservation groups. In those interviews, there was very little talk about education. I did not witness any education programs in the local communities of San Felipe and El Golfo – “ground zero” of the whole vaquita issue.
Millions of dollars have been raised, and numerous experts have been called in to find a solution at a frantic pace. You have got to commend the Mexican government for taking the science seriously in the case of vaquita, with the recent extinction of the baiji being a catalyst in trying to find a solution now.
What I found in local communities is that education about the vaquita, the conservation issues, the fisheries compensation schemes (alternative livelihood projects) and alternatives in fishing gear is severely lacking. Sure, there are groups set up to promote eco-tourism activities like sport-fishing and such. However, what is being offered and what the local market can support is questionable, as raised in my interview with Miguel Reyes Franco entitled "A Fisherman’s Perspective".
Most people think the vaquita is a myth. That is because there is no education about the animal in the region – it is akin to the lochness monster of the northern gulf of california. Ironically, it is this perceived myth that is now altering the very fabric of these local communities.
While in El Golfo de Santa Clara, Catalina Lopez Sagástegui and I visited the local high school to show video and photos of vaquita to students that I filmed only a few days earlier. The classroom was a tan shipping container stocked with computers along the walls. I plugged my Macbook Pro into a projector and away we went. Catalina served as a translator.
On other science expeditions and conservation projects around the world, my wife Genevieve and I conducted education presentations using multimedia to share unique wildlife encounters with students and inspire them about the marine wonders at their doorstep.
So I took the kids on a visual journey to share stories of whales and dolphins. I showed them images and short videos from places like Argentina, Greece and Australia. The aim was to put into perspective just how unique the vaquita porpoise is. After all, this was a Mexican animal, in a Mexican sea. These truly are their animals.
I felt this was one of the most rewarding and important experiences of the entire expedition. Unbelievably, this was the first time anyone had taken the time to visit the school and talk about the vaquita.
After the presentation we answered questions from interested students. They asked things like:
“Why hasn’t anyone come here to show us this before?” “People like you should come and share with us what you are doing...”
I left images and video with the principal of the school to show students in the future, and to share with others in the town.
Throughout my journey in Mexico, I tried to record all sides of the vaquita story. Recently, many people in conservation and science have asked me my thoughts having had such a unique perspective. They want to know what I think the future is for vaquita.
Well, my answer is – the young people in this video . They are the future.
People could argue there may be no vaquita by the time these young people grow up, and I agree. But, this only serves to highlight the fact that the same problem occurs over and over again. People are generally unwilling to invest in education, saying it is too “long-term”, and they don't see a fast enough return on their investment.
However, this kind of forward thinking could prevent such situations occuring in the first place. People knew the Baiji (the Yangtze river dolphin) was in trouble for decades. Yet, it went extinct with most of the world having never heard its name.
As with the baiji, we are now embarking on a desperate effort to save an animal when it is already on the verge of extinction; rather than utilizing long term education efforts to prevent us getting to this point in the first place. Perhaps this is what can be learned from "Expedition Vaquita".
I would like to thank Ernesto Vasquez of CONANP and Catalina López Sagástegui of Noroeste Sustentable (NOS) for kindly transcribing and translating thes interviews.