Totoaba maws on sale in Guangzhou, China

Legalised totoaba fish trade could be the final nail in the vaquita’s coffin

International efforts to save the vaquita, the world’s most endangered marine mammal, took a step in the wrong direction last week when the Mexican Government announced it is considering legalising the trade in totoaba fish.

It is estimated that fewer than 30 vaquita remain and this small porpoise faces extinction due to entanglement in gillnets used to illegally catch totoaba and other valuable marine species in the Upper Gulf of California.

.The dried swim bladders, or maw, of totoaba – itself a critically endangered species – are highly sought after in China due to the belief in their supposed medicinal qualities and can fetch tens of thousands of dollars on the black market.

According to Mexico Environment Minister Rafael Pacchiano, 300,000 totoaba are being cultivated in captivity and this number could be increased to one million a year. Although the proposed measure is ostensibly being considered in order to protect the vaquita by providing an alternative source of totoaba fish, the move is more likely to perpetuate demand for swim bladders and drive continued illegal fishing in the Upper Gulf, pushing the vaquita closer to extinction.

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

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

As with ivory and the products of other endangered wildlife, a legal totoaba trade would provide criminal networks with a cover for continued illegal trade, further obstructing existing enforcement efforts which to date have largely failed.

“This is an entirely misguided effort on the part of the Mexican Government, which has not done nearly enough to save the vaquita,” said Clare Perry, Ocean Campaign Leader. “Legalising totoaba trade will complicate enforcement and perpetuate a demand for totoaba that can never be met by legal means. It will literally hammer the last nail into the coffin of the vaquita.”

Marine mammal experts from the Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (CIRVA) recently warned that illegal fishing activities continue at alarming levels, recommending that Mexican enforcement agencies immediately increase their efforts on land and in water to eliminate all gillnet use in the range of the vaquita.

EIA recommends that rather than legalising demand for totoaba, Mexico maintains and strengthens the ban on all totoaba fishing and trade while substantially increasing enforcement efforts to dismantle the criminal networks facilitating the trade.

Perry added: “The vaquita’s imminent extinction is primarily due to large-scale corruption – only genuine political will from Mexico to end this corruption coupled with a massive enforcement crackdown in the Upper Gulf of California can save the species.”

Find out more about this issue in our report Facing Extinction: Survival of the Vaquita Depends on Eliminating the Illegal Trade in Totoaba.