Special Thanks to Whole Terrain where this piece first appeared.
I was broke for Christmas. In September, I helped to file the first-ever federal lawsuit in the U.S. seeking the rights of nature for a major ecosystem, the Colorado River. For the rest of the fall, to support the case and to build a personal relationship with her, I traveled with the Colorado River. I promised my sister-in-law I’d be on call to babysit because I had no money for gifts.
With a deadline looming, I multitasked while babysitting my two-year-old nephew, Thomas. He sat on the living room floor playing with his collection of plastic shark, whale, and dolphin figurines, his favorite toys. With a dolphin in one hand and the dolphin’s “sister,” a humpback whale, in the other, two marine mammal species swam through the waves in Thomas’ imagination, much as they do in ecological reality: as relatives.
An active child, it is rare that anything holds Thomas’ attention for long. So, I cautiously maneuvered behind him to take a seat on the couch — prime wrestling territory. At any moment, I risked a face full of toddler giggles and a little boy’s confidence that no matter where he threw his body — from the headboard of the couch, the low hanging branches of his backyard trees or the top stair of the long stairway up to his bedroom — his uncle would be there to catch him.
Once I ascertained that the coast was clear, I reached for my pen and notebook and turned on a documentary about the critically endangered vaquita porpoise.
Vaquitas are the world’s smallest porpoises. They are also the world’s most rare marine mammals. At home only in the Gulf of California, this unique porpoise used to thrive where the green freshwater of the Colorado River poured into the gray saltwater of the Pacific Ocean. Today, the river, weakened by climate change and drought, exhausted by industrial use, and caged by dams, no longer reaches the sea.
Vaquitas forage for small fish, squid, and crustaceans in shallow, turbid waters. Unfortunately, so do the fishermen whose gill nets inadvertently trap vaquitas and kill them. A recent Guardian article estimates that only 30 vaquitas survive on Earth and describes how well-meaning conservationists aborted a plan to capture wild vaquitas for captive breeding after the very first vaquita captured was so traumatized she died a few hours later.
The documentary began with several beautiful minutes showing vaquitas swimming under sunny blue Mexican skies. Thomas looked up, mesmerized. He dropped his plastic animals for the real animals on television. With his mouth as wide open, in awe, as his eyes and never taking his gaze from the television, he slowly climbed up to sit next to me.
“Whoa,” he said as the vaquitas gracefully surfaced for a breath before gliding back into shadowy depths. “Dolphins?” he turned to me and asked with his brand new vocabulary. I explained that they were the dolphins’ sisters, porpoises.
“Oh!” Thomas said happily and tried to sound out this new word, struggling with the R. “POH-pess. POHHH-pess.”
The footage changed from images of joy to images of horror. Drowned vaquitas wrapped in nets came next. Thomas quickly understood. “Help!” he shouted, frantically. “Get them out!”
I didn’t know how to respond. I was moved by Thomas’ urgency. He looked at me with confusion and pain, an expression similar to when he unexpectedly bumps his head on a wall, or slips on ice in the driveway. When he bumps his head, or slips, I can wrap him in my arms, kiss his forehead, and get him a Band-Aid to make it all better. But, I did not know what to do for his present pain. I did not know how to gather the innocence that welled up in his eyes, rolled down his cheeks, and was lost too soon. I was helpless.
Then, I did the worst thing you can do for a frightened toddler: I started crying, too.
Thomas and I recovered. For a while, he sat contemplative and still until the film moved on to interviews with biologists, politicians, and activists. He does not understand words like “conservation,” “endangered,” and “extinction,” and he began to eye his toys on the floor once more. But, before he left, Thomas tugged my arm, and asked, “Go see them?”
I looked from the artificial representations scattered across the carpet, to the real, but dwindling living creatures on the television screen, to my nephew’s earnest, imploring eyes. And my heart broke. By the time I could save up enough money to take Thomas from his home in Utah to the Gulf of California, there may no longer be any vaquitas to see.
After babysitting, I continued my research. Barbara Taylor, conservation biologist with the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) who was involved in the last-ditch rescue plan where the vaquita died a few hours after capture, said afterwards, “Taking vaquitas into human care was always an extreme measure, but it was virtually our only option.” Taylor gave the vaquitas “a year or two at best” and called the plan “the hail mary for vaquitas.”
It’s not just vaquitas, either. In 2015, the World Wildlife Fund published a report, reviewed by the Zoological Society of London, that found that global populations of vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish) declined by 58% between 1970 and 2012. World marine vertebrate populations (such as vaquitas) declined by 49% during that time. Some species, including tuna, mackerel, and bonito, declined by 75%. And, especially pertinent to the Colorado River, animals living in the world’s lakes, rivers, and freshwater systems experienced the most dramatic population declines, at 81%.
The World Wildlife Fund’s findings support the now-famous 2006 study by Dalhousie University marine ecologist Dr. Boris Worm published in Science. Worm predicted at least 90% population declines in all fish species currently fished by 2048. Worm used the term “collapse” and Worm’s study is cited to mean there will be virtually no large fish in the ocean by 2048.
My imagination falters when I ponder the high possibilities of extinction for so many species. I cannot see oceans without blue whales stirring them. I cannot listen to seas without humpback whale songs. I cannot locate sacred humility below the waves without great white sharks hunting.
I am tempted to give up, put my pen down, and turn away. The deeper I delve the more pain I find. Research becomes masochistic. Each article, each report, each study comes with worse news. Why do I keep looking? But, I can’t stop.I cannot look forward, so I look back. I remember a family trip to Maine when I begged my parents to take my little sister and me on a whale-watching tour. I focused every ounce of my ten-year-old attention on the horizon. We saw plenty of basking sharks and porpoises, but I really wanted to see a humpback whale. We were ten minutes from the dock, after a six-hour trip, and I was sure I would never see a humpback whale, when 30 yards from our boat a humpback leapt. I can still feel the spray of the whale’s splash blowing across my face.
A 2016 Ellen MacArthur Foundation report found that 8 million metric tons of plastic leak into the ocean annually, equivalent to dumping one garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute. If the flow of plastic is not curtailed, plastic will outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050. Rivers carry much of this plastic into the ocean. In failing to reach the sea, at least the Colorado River cannot serve as a plastic conduit.
My memory of Thomas hypnotized by the graceful swimming of the vaquitas surfaces. He cheerfully plays with plastic sharks, whales, and dolphins. He is oblivious. The plastic figurines horrify me. Plastic infects oceans. Fish ingest thousands of tons of plastic every year. Small fish are eaten by bigger fish, which are eaten by sharks, whales, and dolphins. In their glossy shine, Thomas’ toys reflect a perverse irony. They are made from the very material that kills the real, living creatures his plastic simulacra represent.
An image from the future finally solidifies. I wish it hadn’t. Several years from now, I read headlines that the last humpback whale has died. Outside, it is raining and I see little plastic whales washing down the storm drains.
I find the work of Dr. Daniel Pauly, a marine biologist for the Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries. Pauly identifiedthe “shifting baselines syndrome.” Through his work to save fish populations, Pauly observed: “each generation of fisheries scientists accepts as a baseline the stock size and species composition that occurred at the beginning of their careers, and uses this to evaluate changes.” The mistake compounds generation after generation.
Each generation accepts a more impoverished planet. Species are destroyed at an accelerating pace, while those causing the destruction don’t even remember whom they’ve destroyed. Will Thomas grow up to think this destruction is normal?
In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting, Milan Kundera tells us that the struggle against oppression is “the struggle of memory against forgetting.” The lawsuit about the Colorado River I was involved in this fall was an attempt to help the American legal system remember, but it was dismissed after we were threatened with sanctions for the unforgivable act of seeking rights for nature. No one is more responsible for the facilitation of life in the arid American Southwest than the Colorado River. By damming her, overdrawing her, polluting her, and destroying her inhabitants, modern humans forget who gives them life. The American legal system forgets, too.
I do not have money to buy Thomas a Christmas gift or to take him to the Gulf of California to see a vaquita before the remaining thirty are lost. But, when I consider the mass extinction stripping the planet of wildlife, cultural amnesia, and the fierce desire to help I saw reflected in my nephew’s eyes, I know Kundera is right.
And, I hope Thomas will accept these memories as gifts. I hope he will not forget.