Has a Lifeline Been Thrown to the Vaquita Porpoise?

In May, scientists conducted a survey in the Upper Gulf of California, looking for the world’s most endangered cetacean: the vaquita. Equipped with powerful binoculars and hydrophones, trained observers sought to detect the elusive species, of which fewer than 10 are believed to remain. During the last survey in fall 2021, vaquita adults and calves were observed, demonstrating that after decades of decline, a small population was enduring in its only habitat on Earth. 

Survey results are difficult to predict. Fishers targeting the valuable totoaba fish and other lucrative species such as shrimp have plied these waters for decades. Their (now illegal) gillnets indiscriminately kill vaquita, whales, rays, sharks, sea turtles, and myriad other bycaught marine species, threatening the biodiversity of one of the most ecologically productive marine habitats in the world.

photo by Adobe Stock
photo by Adobe Stock

Totoaba bladders—coveted for their purported medicinal benefits, to make soup, and simply as an investment—are worth tens of thousands of dollars on Chinese black markets. Although no credible population estimate is available, scientists indicate the rate at which totoaba are being poached is unsustainable, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature reports that the species is in decline. 

Recognizing the threat to the vaquita, totoaba, and other Upper Gulf species, AWI and its partners (the Center for Biological Diversity, Environmental Investigation Agency, and Natural Resources Defense Council) have implemented a multifaceted strategy using national laws and international conventions to compel the Mexican government to enforce its fishing laws. In September 2020, Mexico promulgated regulations to combat illegal fishing in vaquita habitat, which, if fully implemented and enforced, could save the vaquita. 

Despite the urgency of the situation, international agreements such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and the World Heritage Convention are often ill-suited to spur timely action in such crises. Typically, there is a great deal of debate and calls for further studies, as well as deference to the non-compliant country in the hope that it will choose to abide by the international body’s decisions and recommendations. The stark reality in this case is that, over the past 30 years, Mexico has made and broken multiple promises to save the vaquita. 

In a glimmer of hope, on March 27, the CITES secretariat recommended that parties to the convention suspend all commercial trade with Mexico in CITES-listed species (e.g., reptile skins, artificially propagated plants, timber/wood products)—trade worth millions of dollars annually. The suspension was triggered by Mexico’s failure to submit an adequate compliance action plan to combat illegal fishing and trafficking of totoaba as directed by the CITES Standing Committee in November 2022. 

In response to the suspension, a delegation of Mexican officials went to Geneva for talks with the secretariat. On April 13, the recommended trade suspension was withdrawn after Mexico submitted a revised plan that was provisionally approved by the secretariat. (That plan has not been released publicly.) Mexico now has six months to implement this plan or potentially face sanctions again when the Standing Committee reconvenes in November 2023. 

Mexico may also face sanctions from the United States. In 2014, the Department of the Interior was petitioned to use its authority under the Pelly Amendment to the Fishermen’s Protective Act of 1967 to certify that, in targeting totoaba, nationals of Mexico “are engaging in trade or taking which diminishes the effectiveness of [an] international program for endangered or threatened species”—in this case, CITES. Under the Pelly Amendment, once such a certification is issued, the president has 60 days to decide whether to embargo fish or other wildlife products (and potentially limit other imports) from the country.

When the DOI failed to respond to this petition, AWI and our coalition partners sued. On May 18, consistent with a settlement of that suit, Interior Secretary Haaland did, in fact, certify that the “taking and trade” of totoaba and “related incidental take of vaquita” by Mexican nationals “diminishes the effectiveness of … CITES.” It is now up to President Biden to decide whether and what sanctions to impose.

In addition, the World Heritage Committee (after years of delay due to the COVID-19 pandemic and controversy over Russia’s chairmanship) will meet in September to decide on measures designed to protect vaquita and totoaba. The committee designated the World Heritage site in the Upper Gulf as “in danger” in 2019 because of threats to the vaquita and totoaba. Now, it will finally vote on a suite of corrective actions and conservation criteria that, if met, would eventually allow the “in danger” designation to be removed. 

Cumulatively, these actions may finally cause Mexico to step up enforcement efforts. Meanwhile, in April, the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society and the Mexican Navy, which have been collaborating in the region, reported a noticeable decline in illegal fishing in the Zero Tolerance Area (ZTA)—where vaquita spend most of their time—as well as in adjacent waters. 

While this is good news, illegally set gillnets continue to threaten vaquita. During a single operation in March, for example, over two miles of nets were removed from the Upper Gulf. There are ongoing reports from the Mexican media and from fishers themselves of uncontrolled gillnet fishing for totoaba within the Gillnet Exclusion Zone (which encompasses the much smaller ZTA) to protect the vaquita throughout its historic range. 

Furthermore, illegal vessel operations continue to occur in the ZTA, while gillnet use (or potential use) has been documented both within and, more frequently, outside of the ZTA. While the Navy does seize some nets, it prefers to ask fishers to pull their nets and leave the area. Moreover, it does not cite or arrest fishers engaged in illegal activities. Even when totoaba poachers are prosecuted, such cases can be derailed, as with the recent case in which government witnesses refused to testify due to reported threats to their families and themselves. 

Is the decline in fishing in the ZTA permanent or an anomaly? Will Mexico’s CITES-approved plan succeed or be another broken promise? Despite the decades of lawlessness and Mexico’s enforcement failures, this tiny porpoise persists. Such perseverance gives us some hope that if gillnet fishing can be permanently eliminated, the population can recover, and countless other species can be saved from cruelly dying in gillnets. 

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