The Most Endangered Marine Mammal Could Be Gone in Three Years

Only 50 vaquitas are left in the world, and poaching of fish bladders for an Asian delicacy will most likely be their demise.

A vaquita porpoise killed in a gillnet intended for sharks in the Sea of Cortez near San Felipe, Mexico. (Photo: Flip Nicklin/Getty Images)


Jun 19, 2015· 2 MIN READ
David Kirby has been a professional journalist for 25 years. His third book, Death at Seaworld, was published in 2012.

The already fragile population of vaquita porpoises in Mexico’s Gulf of California plummeted by 42 percent in just one year, a new study reports, and experts warn that only about 50 of the critically endangered animals are left on Earth.

The culprit is most likely an odd mix of seafood poachers, Mexican drug lords, and Chinese consumers combining to catch, ship, and eat a supposedly medicinal fish-bladder soup.

The extraordinary decline was reported today in the International Whaling Commission’s 2015 Scientific Committee Report, which took data from the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita. In it, new population estimates were recorded through the number of vaquita vocalizations counted in the Gulf.

“CIRVA concluded that the acoustic monitoring program continues to provide strong evidence of a dramatic decline in vaquita abundance,” says the report. “CIRVA found the rates of decline alarming, particularly the apparent 42 percent decline from 2013 to 2014.”

“It’s a stunning drop. It’s deeply scary,” said Sarah Uhlemann, international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The vaquita has been declining since it was discovered in the 1950s, and recently we’re seeing a far more precipitous drop.”

The last vaquita survey estimated there were fewer than 100 animals in the wild, and CIRVA’s survey estimated the porpoises’ annual decline was about 18.5 percent. But the new figures bring the average up to 31 percent, according to the whale commission report.

At that rate, the vaquita will be extinct within three years.

The smallest and rarest member of the porpoise family is listed as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Elusive and rarely seen, it inhabits a relatively small swath of the northern Gulf of California.

That’s the problem. Those are prime waters for fishers who catch fish and shrimp with gillnets, which also entangle and drown the vaquita.

So, why the recent drop? Many experts point to the growing illegal trade in the totoaba, a fish species that is also endangered and only found in the Gulf. The fish are poached for their swim bladders, which are smuggled into China and other Asian countries and boiled into a soup that allegedly boosts fertility and improves the complexion.

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Demand for totoaba bladder has spiked in recent years, driving black-market prices to astronomical levels. A single bladder can sell for $14,000, according to the CBD.

“We’ve seen ads selling totoaba bladders on Chinese websites,” Uhlemann said. “Demand is increasing as the population becomes wealthier.”

According to the CBD, “By late 2012, it became obvious that the totoaba trade had grown sharply. At CIRVA’s 2014 meeting, scientists reported…a ‘large increase in illegal fishing pressure.’ ”

Making matters worse, leaders of Mexico’s drug cartel are getting involved in the lucrative poaching and smuggling of the totoaba.

In April, following years of international pressure, Mexico issued a two-year ban on most gillnets in the northern Gulf. But the action may be “too little, too late,” according to a CBD statement.

“Mexico’s previous efforts to ban fishing in vaquita habitat were unsuccessful,” the statement said. “In fact, the number of boats within the porpoise’s habitat actually increased during the Mexican government’s previous efforts to ban fishing.”

Along with the two-year ban, the Mexican government has vowed to increase enforcement, visual surveys, and compensation for fishers left without livelihoods, according to the report.

But many conservation groups remain skeptical and have petitioned the Obama administration to impose trade sanctions against Mexico, including a possible shrimp boycott, until it terminates the totoaba fishery altogether.

Calls to the U.S. Department of Commerce, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Mexican Embassy in Washington, D.C., were not returned.

Zak Smith, staff attorney at the National Resources Defense Council, said anyone concerned about saving the vaquita should get involved.

“Try to inform the Mexican government through available avenues,” Smith said. “Try to contact the president’s office. And ask the U.S. government to be more forceful in communicating how this is a priority—and to offer Mexico assistance to enforce their ban.”

Otherwise, Smith said, “I don’t know if it will be a year from now or two years from now, but people will become aware of the vaquita just as we list a cetacean species as extinct for the first time in North America.”

Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly identified the vaquita’s habitat as the Gulf of Mexico. It has been updated to include the correct location, the Gulf of California. TakePart regrets the error.