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A new report urges trade suspensions against Mexico for its failure to protect the critically endangered vaquita from illegal fishing and trade in the totoaba fish

CITES’s last chance to save the vaquita

Fate of the world’s most endangered cetacean to be decided in Geneva


LONDON: As governments from around the world prepare to meet in Geneva for the 18th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a new report urges the imposition of trade suspensions against Mexico for its failure to protect the critically endangered vaquita from illegal fishing and trade in the totoaba, a large fish found in Mexico’s Gulf of California.

The vaquita, the world’s smallest and most endangered cetacean, is found only in Mexico’s northern Gulf of California. Scientists recently announced that as few as 10 vaquita porpoises are estimated to survive in the world – a direct result of rampant and uncontrolled illegal fishing for totoaba, which is poached for its swim bladder or maw.

Totoaba maws are trafficked by organised criminal syndicates from Mexico to China, where they are highly valued for their purported medicinal properties. Prices can exceed $20,000/kg.

CITES’s Last Chance: Stop the illegal totoaba trade to save the vaquita details investigations by the London-based Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) into the totoaba trade in Mexico and China and describes a persistent failure by Mexico to address the illegal fishing and trade, despite repeated commitments to do so.

One vaquita mortality has been documented so far in 2019 and the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) reported in March 2019 that “enforcement efforts have been completely ineffective in reducing the illegal totoaba fishery in the Upper Gulf of California.”

CIRVA has emphasised that the vaquita is not yet extinct and recovery remains a possibility, albeit slim. They are still producing offspring and the remaining animals are healthy, showing no signs of disease or malnutrition.

In 2016, CITES Parties adopted a series of decisions aimed at addressing the illegal fishing and trade of totoaba. These decisions have been only partially implemented at best and lack the force and urgency required in the face of imminent extinction of the vaquita.

Clare Perry, EIA Ocean Campaigns Leader, said: “The apathetic response to the CITES decisions on the vaquita and totoaba is inexcusable in the face of the looming extinction of the vaquita.

“This is the last chance for CITES to spur real action to save the vaquita – because unless the illegal fishing and illegal trade driving it are stopped, there will simply be no vaquita left in existence at the next Conference of the Parties in 2022. That will be on us, a major extinction on our watch at the hands of criminals, and CITES must take the strongest possible steps at this meeting to avert such an outcome.”

CITES Parties are scheduled to discuss the crisis during a session on 20 August where, it is hoped, Mexico will be censured for its ongoing failures to stop the illegal fishing and trade in totoaba parts.

“For decades, Mexico has failed the vaquita and the international community by making and breaking multiple commitments to protect the species and its habitat,” said DJ Schubert, wildlife biologist at the Animal Welfare Institute. “CITES Parties must act decisively to ensure that Mexico follows through and saves this species before the vaquita is lost forever.”

“Even as vaquita porpoises teeter on the very edge of extinction, the Mexican Government is still failing to protect them,” said Alejandro Olivera, Mexico’s representative at the Center for Biological Diversity. “Mexico has made only empty promises to save these porpoises from deadly nets, without real enforcement on the water. The world is watching and President Lopez Obrador has to stop all gillnet fishing and save the vaquita.”

“The extinction of the vaquita is entirely avoidable,” said Zak Smith, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council’s marine mammal protection project. “The international community must hold Mexico accountable for its current approach, which is guaranteeing vaquita extinction, and compel and support a new, vigorous plan for vaquita survival.”



  • Paul Newman, EIA Press & Communications Officer, via press[at] or +44 (0) 20 7354 7960
  • Daniela Arellano, NRDC, via darellano[at]
  • Sarah Uhlemann, CBD, via suhlemann[at]
  • Marjorie Fishman, AWI, via margie[at]



  1. The Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) investigates and campaigns against environmental crime and abuses. Our undercover investigations expose transnational wildlife crime, with a focus on elephants, pangolins and tigers, and forest crimes such as illegal logging and deforestation for cash crops such as palm oil; we work to safeguard global marine ecosystems by tackling plastic pollution, exposing illegal fishing and seeking an end to all whaling; and we address the threat of global warming by campaigning to curtail powerful refrigerant greenhouse gases and exposing related criminal trade.
  2. The Animal Welfare Institute is a nonprofit charitable organisation founded in 1951 and dedicated to reducing animal suffering caused by people. AWI engages policymakers, scientists, industry and the public to achieve better treatment of animals everywhere – in the laboratory, on the farm, in commerce, at home and in the wild.
  3. The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, non-profit conservation organisation with more than 1.4 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.
  4. The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international non-profit environmental organisation with more than three million members and online activists. Since 1970, our lawyers, scientists and other environmental specialists have worked to protect the world’s natural resources, public health and the environment. NRDC has offices in New York City; Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles; San Francisco; Chicago; Bozeman, Montana; and Beijing.
  5. Read and download CITES’s Last Chance at


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