Demonstrators Rally for Imperiled Porpoises at Mexican Embassy in Washington, DC

Photo by the Animal Welfare Institute

Call for Immediate Action to Save the Endangered Vaquita

Washington, DC—Conservation and animal protection organizations rallied outside the Mexican Embassy today to call on the Mexican government to take drastic action to save the few remaining vaquita porpoises left on the planet. According to scientific experts, between 6 and 22 of these marine mammals remain, with 10 being the most credible estimate of the population.

Found only in a small area of Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California, the vaquita faces a single threat: entanglement in illegal gillnets set for shrimp and various fish species, including endangered totoaba. Totoaba swim bladders are illegally exported by organized criminal syndicates from Mexico to China, where they are highly valued for their perceived medicinal properties. Prices for the bladders can exceed $20,000.00/kg.

“The situation is dire, and the Mexican government must act immediately to end all gillnet fishing and adopt a ‘zero tolerance’ enforcement policy in the vaquita's limited remaining habitat,” said Kate O’Connell, marine wildlife consultant at the Animal Welfare Institute. “Failure to act decisively will result in the extinction of this unique porpoise, and a shameful legacy for the Lopez Obrador administration.”

In 2018, the U.S. Court of International Trade temporarily banned the import of Mexican seafood caught with deadly gillnets in vaquita habitat. Last week, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee approved an “in danger” designation for the World Heritage site that encompasses the vaquita’s last remaining home. Mexico is expected to come under additional international pressure to act swiftly and decisively when the parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) meet in Geneva in August.

“Mexico is being condemned all over the world for failing to save these beautiful little porpoises,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “What will it take for the Mexican government to finally wake up and get serious about avoiding the vaquita’s extinction?”

“The million-year-old story of vaquita existing on our planet is nearing an end because of choices made by government officials in Mexico,” said Zak Smith, senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Center’s marine mammal protection project. “The vaquita’s story can continue if Mexico accomplishes the relatively simple task of keeping gillnets out of a very small area of the Upper Gulf of Mexico.”

Participants of the rally—held in conjunction with the July 6 International Save the Vaquita Day—carried signs, wore “Save the Vaquita!” t-shirts, and handed out information to the public about the plight of the species. A life-size model of a vaquita was also on display. Following the rally, representatives from the organizations sponsoring the rally met with embassy personnel to discuss their concerns.

Illegal fishing is rampant in the Upper Gulf of California. Between October 2016 and April 2019, wildlife protection organizations, the Mexican government and fishermen collected nearly 1,200 illegal gillnets from the vaquita’s habitat. Most of these nets (721) were actively being used to fish while the remainder were abandoned gear.

"This is such a frustrating situation. The vaquita being drowned by gillnets are otherwise healthy,” said Marc Berkstresser, one of the rally organizers. “Unlike so many other conservation emergencies around the world, the vaquita as a species has everything it needs to survive in its habitat—except freedom from gill nets. We know exactly what will save them—removal of the gillnets and vigilant enforcement is needed immediately!" 

"We are watching an iconic marine species disappear before our eyes, simply because regulations on illegal fishing practices are not enforced,” said Juan Carlos Cantú, director of Defenders of Wildlife’s Mexico program. “President López Obrador needs to stop the lawlessness of Totoaba bladder poachers to ensure the survival of the critically endangered vaquita. The previous administration dropped the ball on saving this species, and now the vaquita will surely disappear if the mortality rates continue unaltered."

Thomas A. Jefferson, director of VIVA Vaquita, said, “For us to accept the loss of the vaquita, one of only seven species of porpoises in the world, is unthinkable to me. If this happens, especially so soon after the extinction of the Yangtze River dolphin in 2006, we would need to redouble our efforts to stem the rising tide of extinction. But, I also don't believe it is too late for the vaquita, Mexico's ‘panda of the sea.’”

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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. For more information, visit www.awionline.org. 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. www.biologicaldiversity.org

About Defenders of Wildlife
Defenders of Wildlife is dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities. With over 1.8 million members and activists, Defenders of Wildlife is a leading advocate for innovative solutions to safeguard our wildlife heritage for generations to come. For more information, visit defenders.org/newsroom and follow us on Twitter @DefendersNews.

About the Natural Resources Defense Council
The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 2 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, MT, and Beijing. Visit us at www.nrdc.org and follow us on Twitter @NRDC.

About ¡VIVA Vaquita!
¡VIVA Vaquita! is a coalition of like-minded scientists, educators, and conservationists who strive to increase the attention given to the vaquita, the world's most endangered marine mammal species. Our goals and mission are to generate awareness of the vaquita and to promote a healthy Upper Gulf of California ecosystem. We conduct research, public awareness and education activities to bring this about. Ultimately, we aim to help save the vaquita from extinction, and to do so in a way that also provides long-term benefits to the fisherman and other residents who live around the Gulf of California, Mexico. http://www.vivavaquita.org

Photo by the Animal Welfare Institute