In the azure waters of the Gulf of California a small, gentle species of porpoise is engaged in a desperate struggle to maintain its existence. The Vaquita Porpoise (Phocoena sinus), tiny compared to the majority of its cetacean relatives – growing to a length of roughly five feet long, and typically weighing less than 120 pounds – has become the rarest marine mammal on the planet, with only an estimated 10 remaining in its endemic habitat of the Sea of Cortez.
The vaquita, discovered just over 50 years ago, has become the chief victim of illegal gillnetting operations in Mexico targeting the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), itself an endangered fish species whose swim bladders are coveted as a delicacy in Chinese cuisine and often fetch tens of thousands of dollars on the black market. The illegal yet lucrative market for totoaba encourages the use of gillnets in the northern Sea of Cortez, and these gillnets often snare vaquita as collateral damage. Gillnetting is also the primary method for catching other types of fish and shrimp; northern Mexico’s chief market for this seafood is the United States.
Efforts to save both the totoaba and the vaquita have focused on eliminating the practice of gillnetting in the Gulf of California. Mexico’s ban of the practice in 2017, however, hasn’t led to an effective deceleration of the vaquita’s population decline, likely due to lack of enforcement; additionally, the presence of organized crime in the totoaba market has made it even harder to implement the ban. Alex Olivera, from the Center for Biological Diversity, says that political corruption for the totoaba trade runs deep: “Imagine the logistics required to deliver a dry bladder to a market in China from the Gulf of California.
That kind of transaction requires a lot of graft and looking-the-other-way across a vast network, but the totoaba business is so lucrative that it attracts that level of corruption.” This factor, combined with the difficulties in convincing local fishermen to follow the ban on gillnetting, has created an unmanageable environment for the Mexican government to police.
Another effort to curb gillnetting was made this year by the U.S National Marine Fisheries Service which announced an embargo on all seafood caught in the vaquita’s native habitat, putting pressure on the Mexican government to crack down on gillnetting in the area.
The embargo parallels other international efforts to aid in the enforcement of Mexico’s ban, such as the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species’ (CITES) threat of trade sanctions against Mexico if it fails to enforce its law. CITES sanctions have proven effective before: in Thailand in 2013, CITES’ threat of sanction initiated a decrease in the illegal ivory trade of 96% by 2016. Additionally, the World Heritage Committee has listed the vaquita’s habitat as “in-danger”, meaning that if Mexico doesn’t make a concerted effort to save the vaquita, it risks losing its World Heritage status.
Enforcing Mexico’s ban on gillnetting involves the installation of troops and 24 hour patrols throughout the vaquita habitat to ensure adherence to the law. The local fishermen, however, are reliant on their ability to fish in the area, and are reluctant to change their ways. While they used to be compensated for not fishing in the vaquita habitat, the Mexican government stopped offering compensation in December of 2018 and since then, fishermen have returned to gillnetting to generate income.
Although the embargo and threat of sanction have generated a renewed legislative commitment to saving the vaquita, a major component of the crisis faced by both the vaquita and the totoaba are the organized, transnational criminal entities that profit from the totoaba market. Many of these traffickers are linked to Mexico’s drug trade, and smuggle totoaba bladders through the U.S and into the Asian black market. “Organized crime is involved in totoaba trafficking because it’s more profitable than cocaine trafficking,” says Olivera. “That’s why they call totoaba ‘cocaine of the sea.”
Consequently, tackling the use of gillnets necessarily requires investigation into the illegal totoaba trade, a realm not easily impacted by international embargoes and sanctions, as well as the removal of corrupt officials from the organizations tasked with protecting the totoaba and vaquita.
At this point, the vaquita’s hope for survival is desperate at best, however the recent increase in international pressure is cause for hope. Whether or not the Mexican government is able to achieve real enforcement of their ban against gillnetting depends heavily upon their ability to coordinate with China and the United States on the issue.
The three nations represent the source, destination, and transit areas for the totoaba trade, and therefore have the most influence on the issue. According to Olivera, trilateral meetings have taken place, with drafts of agreements waiting to be ratified, and there is pressure from international organizations like CITES for these meetings to continue. Ultimately though, as Olivera states, “It’s a matter of political will.”
Currently, estimates on the size of the vaquita population vary in the range of 6-15 individuals. Despite their critically small population, recent vaquita sightings indicate that they are healthy and well fed, giving experts hope that their population may be able to recover if they are kept safe from the perils of gillnetting. However, until real, effective action comes from the powers that be, the vaquita population is likely to continue its historic decline to extinction.
Kieran Hadley is a writer and photographer based out of the Rocky Mountain West. His interests focus mainly on international and environmental topics as well as conservation and outdoor recreation.