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In Mexico, the race is on to save a small porpoise that is on the brink of extinction. It's just a few feet long. And it's called the vaquita, Spanish for little cow. It lives in the Gulf of California. Scientists believe only 30 remain. Mexico started an expensive effort to save the vaquita but its chances don't look good. NPR's Carrie Kahn went to San Felipe, Mexico, and sent this report.
CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: At the stern of the 180-foot long Sam Simon ship, a crew member drops a large metal hook, a so-called port ray, into the water.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASH)
KAHN: It's dragged behind this anti-poaching ship belonging to the Sea Shepherd international environmental group in hopes of snagging an illegal fishing net.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Bridge, this is deck. Port ray is in the water.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Over radio) OK, copy. Thank you.
KAHN: With its crew of volunteers from around the world, the Sea Shepherd is on the frontline of the effort to save the vaquita from extinction. The tiny porpoise with black patches around its eyes and mouth is dying at a catastrophic rate, more than a third of its population declining every year since 2011. Oona Layolle, the ship's captain, says the biggest threat to the vaquita are those large gill nets.
OONA LAYOLLE: Those nets are just killing everything, so it's important that they get out.
KAHN: Local fishermen use the large nets to catch the giant totoaba fish that also share these waters. It's become a prize catch in China, where its bladder is believed to have medicinal properties and sells for thousands of dollars. But the nets also snag the vaquita, which is only found in the upper Gulf of California, says Barbara Taylor of the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service.
BARBARA TAYLOR: They have nowhere to go, and it does make them very vulnerable.
KAHN: Two years ago, Mexico took extraordinary steps to protect the vaquita. It banned gill nets for two years here, paid millions of dollars to compensate fishermen ordered out of the water and sent the marines to patrol for poachers. The Sea Shepherd arrived five months ago to help in those patrols, equipped with drones and radar.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
KAHN: At nightfall, the busiest time for the illegal fishermen, the ship's radar spots suspected poachers small boats or pangas. The captain sends out a drone to get a closer look.
TOM HUTTON: Bridge, bridge, drone.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Over radio) Go ahead.
HUTTON: I'm going to take off now. What is my bearing?
KAHN: 19-year-old Tom Hutton from Ireland warms up the small flyer outfitted with night vision equipment.
(SOUNDBITE OF DRONE)
KAHN: Within minutes, it finds a panga boat and hovers over, sending back pictures to Hutton's control screen.
HUTTON: There is three people in this boat.
KAHN: Clearly spooked by the drone above, they ditch all evidence.
HUTTON: They dropped their net right there.
KAHN: The suspected poachers race off. Two hours later, the crew snags the illegal net and pulls it out of the water like the more than 200 they found and destroyed. This work has made them heroes among environmentalists and many scientists but also enemies of some of San Felipe's fishermen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Speaking in Spanish).
KAHN: In March, angry fishermen burned a small panga boat on the waterfront with the names of environmental groups written on it - heard on this video posted online.
SUNSHINE RODRIGUEZ PENA: The boat - the order was given by me.
KAHN: Sunshine Rodriguez Pena heads the largest federation of fishermen in San Felipe.
RODRIGUEZ PENA: That boat was not in the water. That was a protest.
KAHN: Rodriguez, who was raised on both sides of the border, says Mexican authorities should pay more attention to the needs of its own citizens than to a group of foreign environmentalists.
RODRIGUEZ PENA: They've made me the enemy of the world but the hero of my town. And at any day, any time, I'd rather be the hero of my town.
KAHN: Next month is critical in the fight to save the 30 remaining vaquitas and for the fishermen. The program compensating them ends, and there's no word whether it will be renewed. Efre Pacheco, who's fished here all his life, says he received his last compensation check May 1. And without another one coming, he'll have no choice but to go back out to sea.
EFRE PACHECO: (Speaking Spanish).
KAHN: "I don't know how to do anything else, he says." The Mexican government also hasn't provided that vaquita safe nets it promised. NPR's multiple requests for comment from the two main fishing regulatory agencies were ignored.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Over loudspeaker) Standing by. (Unintelligible).
KAHN: Back on the bridge of the Sea Shepherd ship, captain Oona Layolle says it's not time to give up.
LAYOLLE: For the vaquita, we don't know if at the end she will survive or not, and so we have to fight until the end.
KAHN: On land, international conservationists have recommended a last-ditch effort to save the vaquita. They plan to capture as many of them as they can and keep them in captivity. That won't start until October. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, San Felipe, Mexico.
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