Mexico’s new deal a ray of hope for desperate vaquita?

Vaquita (c) IUCN-CSG

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Today, on UN World Oceans Day, there is a ray of hope for the fast-disappearing vaquita, the world’s smallest and most endangered cetacean that is found only in the upper Gulf of California.

An agreement between Mexico, the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and Carlos Slim Foundation, announced yesterday commits Mexico, with the support of the Foundations, to “convert the temporary ban on gillnets to a permanent ban covering all gillnet fisheries throughout the range of the vaquita in the upper Gulf of California.”

A total and permanent ban on gillnet fishing throughout the vaquita’s range represents its only hope of survival.

In addition to the ban, the agreement commits to increasing enforcement capacity and effectiveness, investing in a permanent programme to remove illegal and derelict nets from the Upper Gulf, engaging local communities to develop alternative sustainable livelihoods including sustainable fisheries and accelerating the adoption of vaquita-safe fishing gear.

Totoaba fish maw shown to EIA investigators in Yongsheng Marine Products, China, in 2016 (c) EIA

The vaquita has been driven to the very precipice of extinction as a result of bycatch in nets set to capture the totoaba, a critically endangered fish whose swim bladder is highly prized in China for its purported medicinal value.

In February 2017, fewer than 30 vaquita were estimated to remain. Four further deaths were recorded by April 2017, including two juveniles, all drowned in nets.

EIA’s monitoring shows that fishing and trade in totoaba has continued in earnest in 2017 (click here to explore EIA’s interactive map of totoaba seizures, convictions and observations in trade). Fishing of the totoaba is banned in Mexico and international trade is also prohibited by international agreement. Unless this illegal activity is eliminated immediately, we will witness the tragic and entirely preventable loss of a unique and charismatic species, possibly within the next year.

EIA’s 2016 report Collateral Damage documented the ongoing illegal trade in totoaba swim bladders from Mexico to China and how it was causing the imminent extinction of the vaquita. In the report, EIA concluded that to save the vaquita, Mexico had to put in place a permanent ban on all fishing within the range of the vaquita.

The high profits and low risk afforded by illegal trade in totoaba swim bladders also need to be tackled if the vaquita is to have any chance of survival.

Collateral Damage documented extensive illegal trade in totoaba swim bladders in Guangdong Province, China, the principal market for the product. Since the release of the report, market inspections targeting illegal trade in totoaba have taken place in some key markets. However, these actions appear to have been little more than cosmetic, with press launches giving traders plenty of warning to conceal any illegal activity. No seizures or arrests relating to illegal totoaba trade have taken place.

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Gillnets are the primary cause of vaquita mortality in the upper Gulf of California, Mexico (c) Chris Johnson

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Yesterday’s announcement represents a crucial step if the vaquita is to have any chance of survival. Yet while the announcement declares that all gillnet fisheries will be covered by the ban, previous measures have been undermined by exempting gillnets set for corvina, another fish species found in the same area. These exemptions were made on the basis of the different fishing method used for corvina, despite clear evidence that the corvina fishery provides a cover for illegal totoaba fishing. In order to effectively eliminate bycatch of the vaquita, this ban must include gillnets set for corvina.

Moreover, it should be noted that the President of Mexico committed in July 2016 to such a permanent ban through a bilateral agreement with former US President Barack Obama, the US being a key transit country for totoaba trade. No such measure has been implemented. Recently, it was announced that the temporary ban (corvina exemption and all) would be extended to the end of June. Let’s hope the offer of support from the Foundations enables a full and permanent ban to be implemented without delay.

A permanent ban on all fishing throughout the range of the vaquita, properly enforced, together with collaboration between Mexico, China and the USA to urgently investigate and crack down on the entire trade chain, may at last provide the vaquita with a ray of hope.