Possible vaquita death accompanies announcement that only 10 are left

  • The environmental organization Sea Shepherd said it found a dead vaquita in a gillnet on March 12.
  • One day later, scientists from the group CIRVA announced that around 10 — as many as 22 or as few as six — vaquitas survive in the Gulf of California.
  • Despite a ban on gillnets used catch totoaba, a fish prized for its swim bladders used in traditional Chinese medicine, vaquita numbers have continued to decline.

On March 13, scientists announced that around 10 vaquitas (Phocoena sinus) are left on Earth, just as the environmental group Sea Shepherd said it had found one of the porpoises that had drowned in a gillnet that was probably set to catch a totoaba fish.

“If there were any reservations about totoaba gillnets being a great danger for vaquitas and other cetaceans, despite ample proof in the past, this event should definitely leave no room for doubt,” Locky Maclean, director of marine operations for Sea Shepherd, said in a statement from the organization. Sea Shepherd is currently using genetic testing of tissue samples to confirm that the decomposed carcass they found is that of a vaquita.

Video courtesy of Sea Shepherd.

Vaquitas live only in the upper parts of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California, and they’re the world’s smallest member of the order of animals called cetaceans that includes whales, dolphins and other porpoises. They’re also the most endangered: A scientific group called the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita, known by its Spanish acronym CIRVA, announced March 13 that between six and 22 vaquitas remain.

A lucrative fishery for totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) has taken a toll on vaquita numbers. Totoaba swim bladders, or maws, fetch high prices in Chinese markets for their use in traditional medicine. The intense pressure on the totoaba that results has also made the fish a critically endangered species, according to the IUCN, and the gillnets intended to catch it (as well as other animals like shrimp) have also snagged vaquitas in devastating numbers.

In spite of their conclusions, CIRVA’s scientists say they still believe vaquitas can recover, as they’re still having calves. But experts also admit that the animal faces long odds.

A vaquita in the northern Gulf of California. Image by Paula Olson/NOAA via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).

“There is only the tiniest sliver of hope remaining for the vaquita,” Kate O’Connell, a marine wildlife consultant with the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), said in a statement. “Mexico must act decisively to ensure that all gillnet fishing is brought to an end throughout the Upper Gulf [of California].”

In 2016, the Mexican government outlawed the use of gillnets for most fisheries in the upper Gulf of California. Many scientists and conservationists applauded the move. But criticism has surfaced as vaquita numbers continue to plunge — a sign to some that the authorities haven’t done enough to hold fishers accountable.

“One of Earth’s most incredible creatures is about to be wiped off the planet forever,” Sarah Uhlemann, an attorney and the international program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in the AWI statement. “Mexico has only made paper promises to protect these porpoises from deadly nets, without enforcement on the water.”

Fishers with an illegal haul of totoaba. Image courtesy of Elephant Action League.

Andrea Crosta, the executive director of the wildlife crime investigation group Elephant Action League (EAL), wrote in a recent commentary for Mongabay that the efforts to force Mexico into declaring a gillnet ban may have been counterproductive, catalyzing the rise of an illicit shrimp fishery. What’s more, he said, the ban didn’t tackle an essential part of what sustains the drive — the totoaba fishery.

“There is very little focus and funding for the most important part of the problem, the trafficking networks and middlemen driving the trade,” Crosta said. “The only activities that can truly move the needle are investigation and intelligence collection.”

Scientists believe that no more than 22 vaquitas still live in the Sea of Cortez. Image by Paula Olson/NOAA via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).

EAL’s Operation Fake Gold in 2018 identified cartels in Mexico that buy totoaba from poachers and then sell them to Chinese traders.

Clare Perry, ocean campaign leader for the Environmental Investigation Agency, agreed that the cartels need to be stopped. Perry’s organization released a report in 2016 detailing the methods that crime syndicates use to get maws to market.

“The organized criminal networks trafficking totoaba swim bladders from Mexico to China are responsible for the illegal fishing nets driving the vaquita to extinction,” Perry said in the statement from AWI. “Unless Mexico gets serious about enforcement and works with China and key transit countries to dismantle those networks, there is no hope for the remaining vaquita.”

Banner image of a vaquita by Paula Olson/NOAA via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain). 


Findley, L. (2010). Totoaba macdonaldiThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2010: e.T22003A9346099. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2010-3.RLTS.T22003A9346099.en. Downloaded on 17 March 2019.

Rojas-Bracho, L. & Taylor, B.L. (2017). Phocoena sinusThe IUCN Red List of Threatened Species2017: e.T17028A50370296. http://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2017-2.RLTS.T17028A50370296.en. Downloaded on 17 March 2019.

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