Can the Vaquita Be Saved?

Numerous lists of species that are likely to go extinct within the next few years have been published. Front and center on all of them is the tiny, critically endangered porpoise known as the vaquita.

Identified only 50 years ago, the vaquita is endemic to Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California. Reaching a maximum length of about four feet, the porpoise is gray, with dark stripes running from its flippers to the middle of its lower lip. Its eye is ringed with a broad black circle, giving it a charming, bespectacled “Harry Potter” sort of look. As recently as 20 years ago, there were still approximately 600 vaquita swimming in the Gulf—today there are less than 100. While climate change and habitat degradation have certainly played some role in the species’ rapid decline, the main threat facing this shy, small animal is entanglement in fishing gear, especially gillnets.

The fate of the vaquita has been inextricably entwined with yet another endangered Mexican species, the totoaba, a grouper-like fish that can grow up to six feet in length and weigh over 200 pounds. Initially, the vaquita was threatened by entanglement in gillnets being used to fish for totoaba. Totoaba was once sold as sea bass, and was subject to several periods of intense overfishing, finally resulting in a total fishing ban in 1975.

Although fishing for totoaba was prohibited, other fisheries continued to develop in the Upper Gulf, including a commercial fishery for shrimp. As a result, vaquita entanglements—as well as totoaba bycatch—continued to be a problem, and in 1993, Mexico's President Carlos Salinas declared the Upper Gulf of California to be a Biosphere Reserve. All resource exploitation was prohibited within a zone around the mouth of the Colorado River.

The biosphere plan also included a proposal to ban offshore shrimp trawling in a wider area, and restrict inshore fishers in small boats known as “pangas” to the use of gillnets with a mesh size of four inches or less in an effort to try to reduce entanglements of vaquita, totoaba and other bycatch species.

However, there was little enforcement of any of these regulations and vaquita entanglements continued. The biosphere reserve also did not cover the entirety of the animal’s habitat, and there were numerous instances of vaquita bycatch happening outside the reserve. So in 2005 the Mexican government took action again, establishing a Vaquita Refuge Area and the “Program for the Protection of the Vaquita.” The Mexican government transferred more than US$1 million to the states of Baja California and Sonora that border the Upper Gulf. The funds were to implement the vaquita protection program, including working with fishers to try alternative “vaquita-friendly gear,” and finding ways to boost non-fishing sources of income.

According to vaquita scientists, however, the number of pangas fishing with gillnets had actually doubled within the refuge by 2007. Clearly, the lack of regulatory enforcement was a major problem and efforts to provide alternate sources of income to local fishers were also failing. As a result of this information, there were international calls (including from the International Whaling Commission) to heighten efforts to prevent the extinction of the vaquita, calling on the world to support Mexican efforts by providing financial resources and expertise.

Unfortunately, a new threat to the vaquita’s survival has developed, raising the stakes to an entirely different level.

By 2008, a black market trade in totoaba swim bladders triggered a precipitous increase in illegal fishing in the Upper Gulf. The totoaba bladders sell for US$6,000–8,000 per kilogram in the United States and for as much as US$10,000 per kilogram in China. High in collagen, they are prized in China for their alleged ability to rejuvenate skin, and are also considered an aphrodisiac.

Despite the fact that all commercial international trade in totoaba products is banned, smuggling has continued to escalate. In 2013, Mexican authorities seized more than US$2.25 million worth of the bladders. Similar busts have taken place in the United States, with one of the largest being the dismantling of a totoaba bladder-drying factory in the border city of Calexico, east of San Diego. Hundreds of bladders valued at more than US$3.6 million on the Chinese market were seized.

The vaquita is now quite literally entangled in a fight for its very existence with illegal wildlife traffickers, some of whom are tied to Mexico’s infamous drug cartels.

In August 2014, an international panel of experts known as the Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (CIRVA) estimated that, based on recent surveys, only 97 vaquita remain, and that fewer than 25 of these are breeding females. The current rate of population decline is 18.5 percent per year, and CIRVA has predicted that, unless all gillnets are banned throughout the entirety of its range, this porpoise is likely to go extinct by 2018.

As the AWI Quarterly headed to press, the Mexican government departments SEMARNAT (Environment) and SAGARPA (Fisheries and Agriculture) issued a proposal for a new regulation that would ban the use of gillnets and longlines throughout vaquita habitat, although fishing with other gear would still be allowed. The proposal also includes almost US$37 million to cover both a massive compensation package for those involved in gillnet fishing in the Upper Gulf, and an increase in enforcement efforts. The regulation hopefully will be passed in the early months of 2015.

Meanwhile, both legal and illegal fishing in the area continue to push the vaquita closer to extinction. According to reports from scientists working in the Upper Gulf, the 2014/15 fishing season has been the worst in years with respect to the illegal totoaba fishery. In December 2014, more than 90 pangas were photographed within the boundaries of the Vaquita Refuge Area.

If the vaquita is to survive, the Mexican government must dramatically change its approach and ensure that its fishing regulations are well enforced, and that fishers are provided with viable employment alternatives. US, Mexican and Chinese wildlife authorities must also cooperate fully to stop to the illegal totoaba trade.

Einstein said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Allowing the world’s most endangered marine mammal to go extinct, when it is so clearly known what is needed to save it, would be madness.

AWI’s Dr. Naomi Rose and Kate O’Connell attended a meeting with US government agencies in January to discuss efforts to save the vaquita. One problem: the ease with which totoaba swim bladders (like the one shown here) can be moved from Mexico to China by creative smugglers if law enforcement personnel don’t know what to look for. An effort is underway by US agencies to train law enforcement personnel in China and Mexico in totoaba identifi cation, but further action is needed, including by the federal Advisory Council on Wildlife Traffi cking. Please contact its chairwoman, Judith McHale, urging her to make saving the vaquita a priority. By email: acwt@fws.gov or by mail: International Affairs, US Fish & Wildlife Service, 5275 Leesburg Pike, Falls Church, VA 22041.