Vaquita and totoaba

Ocean

Fewer than 30 vaquita porpoises are believed to be left on the planet, making it the world’s most endangered marine mammal – its extinction is imminent unless significant steps are taken to protect it. 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 fewer than 30 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.

The difference we’ve made

We began investigations into the illegal totoaba trade in 2015 after the 5th Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (CIRVA) meeting reported that illegal totoaba fishing was accelerating the decline of the vaquita. A series of undercover investigations into the illegal totoaba trade have been undertaken, encompassing the source country of Mexico and the major market of China.

The information from the investigations is used to support intelligence-led enforcement efforts to combat the illegal trade. We have provided confidential trade information to Mexico, the US (a transit country) and China through reports and confidential briefings. We maintain a trade map of seizures and have produced three public reports, most recently in November 2017, to advocate stronger national and international efforts to save the vaquita.

We have successfully raised the profile of the plight of the vaquita at international meetings, catalysing international action at the International Whaling Commission and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which agreed to a range of commitments to tackle illegal totoaba trade in 2016 and to launch a high-level mission in 2017.

Vaquita and totoaba

Totoaba maws offered for sale to EIA investigators © EIAimage

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.

How you can help

The Mexican shrimp industry is responsible for causing a significant decline in vaquita numbers and gillnets continue to be used to catch shrimp. We are part of a coalition running a campaign to boycott Mexican shrimps to put pressure on the Mexican fisheries authorities that have consistently hampered efforts to save the vaquita and you can also directly support our work on this issue.

Header image ©: Todd Pusser