Demonstrators Rally for Vaquita at Mexican Embassy in Washington D.C.

Credit: AWI

Published Jul 14, 2019 5:24 PM by The Maritime Executive

Conservation and animal protection organizations rallied outside the Mexican Embassy on July 12 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 six 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. Earlier this month, 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.

“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.”

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!”