CITES’s Last Chance to Save the Vaquita

Photo by Tom Jefferson
Photo by Tom Jefferson

The fate of the world’s most endangered porpoise to be decided in Geneva

London, England—As governments from around the world prepare to meet in Geneva this week, the fate of the critically endangered vaquita hangs in the balance. A new report, prepared for the 18th meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), urges that trade suspensions be imposed against Mexico for its failure to protect the small porpoise from illegal fishing.

The vaquita, the world’s smallest and most endangered cetacean, is found only in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California. Scientists recently announced that an estimated 10 vaquita remain—a direct result of rampant and uncontrolled illegal fishing for totoaba, an endangered fish that is poached for its swim bladder (or “maw”). Totoaba maws are trafficked by organized 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 Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) into the illegal totoaba trade in Mexico and China, and describes Mexico’s persistent failure—despite repeated promises—to save the vaquita from entanglement in gillnets set for shrimp, totoaba and other fish species. One vaquita death has been documented so far this year, and the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) reported in March that “enforcement efforts have been completely ineffective in reducing the illegal totoaba fishery in the Upper Gulf of California.”

CIRVA emphasized that the vaquita is not yet extinct and recovery remains a possibility, albeit slim. These porpoises 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. However, Mexico’s partial implementation of these regulations lacked the necessary force and urgency.

Clare Perry, EIA ocean campaigns leader and author of the report, said: “The apathetic response to the CITES decisions on the vaquita and totoaba is inexcusable in the face of imminent extinction of the vaquita. This is CITES’s last chance to spur real action to save the vaquita; unless the illegal fishing—and the illegal trade that drives it—is stopped, there will be no vaquita at the next meeting of the Conference of the Parties. CITES must take the strongest possible steps at this meeting.”

The CITES parties are scheduled to discuss this issue during an evening session on August 20, where it is hoped that 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, the Mexico representative of the Center for Biological Diversity. “Mexico has only made 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.”

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About the Animal Welfare Institute
The Animal Welfare Institute ( is a nonprofit charitable organization 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. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for updates and other important animal protection news.

About the Center for Biological Diversity
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

About the Environmental Investigation Agency
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 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.

About the Natural Resources Defense Council
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 3 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. Visit us at and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.