Vaquitas and Totoabas

Vaquita bycatch - Photo by AWI

Identified only 50 years ago, the critically endangered 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. As recently as 20 years ago, there were approximately 600 vaquitas swimming in the Gulf. As of late 2015, 60 vaquitas were reported, and the numbers are believed to have fallen even further since then. At least three vaquita were found dead in the spring of 2016; all bore evidence of scarring due to entanglement in nets. The situation is dire.

The primary threat facing this shy, small animal is entanglement in fishing gear, particularly gillnets set to catch shrimp, sharks, and other finfish. There has been a recent resurgence in illegal gillnet fishing for critically endangered totoaba, a large schooling marine fish in the drum or croaker family that is also found only in the Gulf of California. Totoaba can grow up to six feet in length and weigh 220 lbs. Although totoaba fishing has been banned in Mexico since 1975, a black market exists for their swim bladders, which are used to make soup and unproven traditional medicine treatments. With a single bladder fetching up to US$14,000, some fishers illegally catch totoaba and traffic them to China and other Asian countries.

After years of international pressure, in April 2015, Mexico announced a two-year ban on most gillnets in the northern Gulf of California, and promised to increase enforcement action against the growing illegal totoaba fishery. Unfortunately, a key exemption from the ban allowed fishers to continue to target corvina (a type of croaker fish) using gillnets. While these nets tend not to result in bycatch of vaquitas, the exception provided illegal fishers with access to the totoaba fishing waters. This illegal fishing often occurs at night. In order to avoid the few enforcement authorities that are policing the waters, illegal fishers often dump or abandon their nets, resulting in “ghost nets” that catch and kill all sorts of marine life.

Mexico has undertaken efforts to compensate fishers for the loss of income from the fishing ban, but these efforts have largely failed due to corruption and involvement of the Mexican drug cartels. Known totoaba traffickers have been among those receiving compensation. Additionally, while Mexico has attempted to increase on-water enforcement, the effort has been too small given the enormous scale of the illegal fishery.

In July 2016, the United States and Mexico publicly renewed their commitment to save the vaquita, with Mexico stating a commitment to permanently ban all gillnets in all fisheries throughout the vaquita’s entire range. AWI and partner organizations issued a statement in response to this commitment, welcoming the ban of all gillnet fisheries, as well as promises to stop night fishing and police fish landing sites. Unfortunately, it a commitment is not action, and it is possible that this pledge to ban all gillnets in the Upper Gulf of California won’t be upheld.

To truly save the vaquita, however, the Mexican government must go beyond policy pronouncements and commit financing, staff, and political will from the highest level to ensure that a complete gillnet ban is fully and diligently enforced, both on the water and on land. AWI is working through CITES, the IWC, the UN World Heritage Commission, and other forums to help protect the vaquita.

Vaquita/Totoaba Timeline


Vaquita Count




- Mexico closed totoaba fishery via a total ban

- Mexico listed the totoaba as “at risk” under local regulations



- Biosphere Reserve of the Upper Gulf of California and Delta of the Colorado River (Islas del Golfo de California) established to protect vaquita and totoaba from gillnets






- Comité Internacional para la Recuperación de la Vaquita (“CIRVA,” or the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita established by Mexico’s Secretariat of Environment, Natural Resources and Fisheries to develop a recovery plan based on the best scientific evidence



- Gillnet Ban in Biosphere Reserve



- Islands and Protected Areas of the Gulf of California inscribed on World Heritage List



PACE-Vaquita Program and Gillnet Ban Reiteration






- Mexico implements two-year gillnet ban



- United States and Mexico publicly renew commitment to save the vaquita and totoaba, with Mexico stating a commitment to permanently ban all gillnets

The above timeline shows the alarming decline in the vaquita population, despite Mexican and international efforts. In 2014, CIRVA estimated the vaquita population was dropping at a rate of 18.5 percent per year. The current rate of decline is much higher.

Statement in Response to MOU Signed by Mexican Government, Leonardo DiCaprio and Carlos Slim to Protect Vaquita Porpoise

The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) cautiously welcomes the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to protect the critically endangered vaquita as a first step in what will be an extended effort to save the species. We deeply appreciate that the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and the Fundación Carlos Slim are extending their considerable resources and expertise to the severe crisis facing the vaquita.

However, we remain concerned that the MOU, similar to previous promises from the Mexican government, includes a number of details that remain to be fully developed, has provisions that would require substantial investment of funds, and, most importantly, is not legally binding on Mexico

With fewer than 30 animals surviving in the wild, the response to this dire situation must be comprehensive, permanent, urgent, and fully implemented and funded if the government of Mexico is to avoid being blamed for the extinction of this species. There can be no tolerance of those engaged in illegal fishing, apathy, or intentional efforts to dismiss or downplay the crisis facing the vaquita if this species is to have any chance of recovery. The history of the conservation of the vaquita and management of fishing in the Upper Gulf of California is one of many promises made and commitments brokena pattern that cannot be allowed to continue.

AWI recognizes the importance of many of the elements outlined in the MOU such as the implementation of a permanent ban on gillnets, the increased enforcement efforts and increased prosecution of poaching, the prohibition on nighttime fishing, and the designation of monitored embarkation and landing sites. However, many of the proposed actions require further strengthening. For example, the ban on gillnet use must be expanded to cover the possession, transport, and manufacturing of all gillnet fisheries throughout the range of the vaquita, increased enforcement must be stipulated to apply to illegal activities both at sea and on land; and the implementation of a vessel monitoring program must be independent, tamper-proof, and transparent for all vessels fishing within the range of the vaquita.

To be effective, this permanent ban on gillnets must encompass the rodeo-style corvina fishery, which, as has been repeatedly noted by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita  (CIRVA), utilizes gillnets and provides cover for fishermen engaged in the illegal capture of totoaba and trade in totoaba parts, including its valuable swim bladder.

AWI acknowledges the hardships faced by the communities of the Upper Gulf in light of the gillnet ban, and notes the importance of efforts to develop and support alternative livelihoods for the region’s inhabitants that do not endanger the vaquita or any of the other marine wildlife in the Upper Gulf.

AWI is committed to saving the vaquita in the wild and is concerned that the discussion of relegating this species to captivity will divert resources and attention from the urgent need to address the threats that illegal and poorly managed fisheries pose to the vaquita, the totoaba, and the entire marine ecosystem of the Upper Gulf of California. The miles of illegal and abandoned nets retrieved and the significant numbers of dead animals killed as a result of illegal fishing in the Upper Gulf is a testament to the severity of the threats to the vaquita and entire ecosystem and to the inability, to date, of the government of Mexico to effectively enforce its laws.

A repeat of past failures is unacceptable. Until commitments are fulfilled and it is demonstratedby an independent partythat vaquita habitat in the Upper Gulf of California is gillnet free, illegal fishing is ended, and illegal trade in totoaba is eliminated, AWI will not relent in its campaigns to save this species. This includes advocating for:

These and other actions serve to maintain pressure on the Government of Mexico to finally fulfill its promises, and to take urgent and meaningful actions to save the vaquita before it is too late.

AWI is prepared to lend its expertise to the development of the additional plans identified in the MOU and/or to serve on any task force or advisory committee to assist in this final effort to prevent the extinction of the vaquita.

To view the MOU, visit