Credit: Chris Johnson and Proyecto Vaquita Marina

Preventing the extinction of the vaquita

The vaquita, a tiny porpoise species found only in the upper Gulf of California, is the world’s most endangered marine mammal with around 10 — as many as 22 or as few as six — remaining in existence. The vaquita is not hunted in its own right but is dying in illegal nets set for the totoaba fish, an endangered species whose dried swim bladder is prized in China.

The problem

The vaquita, a tiny porpoise species found only in the upper Gulf of California, is the world’s most endangered marine mammal with around 10 individuals remaining.

The vaquita is not hunted in its own right – it is collateral damage, killed accidentally in the illegal gillnets set primarily for totoaba fish, the dried swim bladders, or maw, of which are highly sought-after in China.

For more than two decades, scientists have warned that the survival of the vaquita was dependent on eliminating bycatch in gillnets; however, conservation action has been largely ineffective. The Mexican shrimp industry was largely to blame for the loss of over 70 per cent of the vaquita population from 1990 to 2010. The resurgence of the illegal totoaba fishery since 2010 has accelerated the species’ race to extinction as organised criminal networks have entered the market, seeking to profit from the high value of totoaba – itself an endangered species.

  • Investigations

    We have undertaken several undercover investigations to support

    enforcement against the illegal trade
  • Data

    We maintain a trade map of seizures and produce public reports to

    advocate for stronger efforts to save the vaquita
  • Awareness

    We have successfully raised the profile of the plight of the vaquita

    catalysing action at IWC and CITES

Moving forward

The most recent CIRVA report concluded that unless deaths in illegal gillnets are eliminated now, the vaquita will be extinct in a few years.

Our investigations have revealed that illegal totoaba fishing and trade is just the tip of the iceberg in the Upper Gulf of California. Criminal networks are stripping Mexico’s waters of many valuable marine species, including sea cucumbers, abalone and sea horses.

Mexico’s enforcement efforts have been stepped up in recent years, but against the scale of the challenge they have been woefully inadequate. Unless Mexico enforces a full gillnet ban and addresses the corruption and criminal networks perpetuating the illegal totoaba trade, there is no hope for the vaquita.

We will continue to investigate the illegal totoaba trade, supplying information to enforcement authorities and applying pressure at the international level for greater action on the part of Mexico, China and the US. Despite the very bleak outlook for the vaquita, any improvement in enforcement and governance will have multiple positive impacts on the conservation of threatened and endangered marine species in Mexico.