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Last Ditch Effort to Save the Vaquita Porpoise May Hasten Extinction

October 6, 2017

With less than 30 Vaquita porpoises remaining, the Mexican government will attempt to use trained dolphins to capture some of them for captive breeding.

Lone Vaquita porpoise swimming in Gulf of California, Mexico.

Lone Vaquita porpoise swimming in Gulf of California, Mexico. Photo: Paula Olson/NOAA (Public Domain)

The Vaquita porpoise lives only in Mexico's upper Gulf of Californa and in the last five years its population has collapsed by 90% mostly due to being caught in gillnets used primarily to catch a critically endangered fish called the Totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi) to feed the Chinese market for the fish's air bladder.

The Totoaba is also called the Mexican giant bass and can reach 6.5 feet in length and weigh 220 pounds. They live only in the Gulf of California, spawn just once a year and don’t reach sexual maturity until they are 6 or 7 years old.

Rich Chinese use such bladders to make soups incorrectly thought to smooth the discomfort of pregnancy and cure joint pain. They also buy the dried bladders as speculative investments. A single bladder from a large Totoaba can sell for $30k. This drives the poaching of the fish and the use of gillnets which also kill other species such as the Vaquita porpoise.

Wealthy Chinese who subscribe to the ancient superstitions of traditional chinese medicine are causing the extinction of many other species.

The Vaquita has been listed as critically endangered since 1996 and scientists have been warning for nearly 20 years that the only way to save the Vaquita is to eliminate the presence of gillnets in its habitat.

Vaquita porpoise in Gulf of California with menacing fishing boats in the background.

A vaquita (Phocoena sinus) in the foreground with fishing boats in the background. The vaquita is a critically endangered porpoise species endemic to the northern part of the Gulf of California. It is considered the smallest and most endangered cetacean i Photo: Public Domain

Mexico finally imposed a temporary ban on gillnets in the upper Gulf of California in 2015 but local officials took bribes and succumbed to threats to not enforce the ban.

In the first half of 2017, the conservation group Sea Shepherd took it upon themselves to enforce Mexico's laws and removed 233 illegal fishing gear, including 189 totoaba nets, 27 shrimp and corvina nets and 17 long lines. Sea Shepherd's M/V Farley Mowat is headed back to the Gulf of California to support efforts to save the Vaquita porpoise. 

Following is a video for Sea Shepherd's last 6 month campaign. The new campaign starts November 6th.

It was not until June of this year that the Mexican government finally imposed a permanent ban on gillnets in the Upper Gulf and banned night fishing by smaller vessels and made it possible for authorities to seize illegal fishing gear. All far too little too late.

As part of next week’s operation, captured Vaquita will be placed in pens in the Gulf to protect them from humans. The hope is that, once protected, the porpoise will be able to breed and grow its numbers so that one day it might survive again in the wild.

Capturing the Vaquita and trying to get them to breed in captivity may be very difficult and do more harm than good. They are highly senstive and social creatures and the trauma of being nearly wiped out has already weakened the few remaining.

“This risky option became the only option, but Vaquita have never been captured alive before, so this effort is uncertain,” Alex Olivera of the Center for Biological Diversity said in a statement. “It’s a high-stakes operation that’s happening because the Mexican government has shown an inability to protect the animals in the wild. That has to change if the vaquita is to have any future.”

The following steps are needed to save the Vaquita:

  • Effective enforcement to halt all illegal fishing activities;
  • Extension of the “refuge area” in the Gulf of California to include all of the Vaquita’s habitat;
  • Prohibition of the possession and transportation of gillnets, as well as their use in commercial and artisanal fisheries, for any species and in any kind of vessel, within the “refuge area;”
  • Prohibition of the navigation of ALL vessels during all night hours inside the “refuge area;”
  • The Mexican government should continue to support and fund the monitoring of the population until population recovery is assured in its habitat.
  • A consumer boycott of Mexican seafood.

China and other nations need to enforce laws prohibiting the trafficking of the body parts of endangered species.

China needs to wage an educational campaign against the supersitions of traditional chinese medicine.

Earlier this year conservation groups petitioned the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service to ban imports of seafood caught with gillnets in Mexico’s Upper Gulf of California in order to save the Vaquita. The petition was opposed by Mexico and the seafood industry and has not yet been acted on by the U.S. government. The Trump administration's policy is to not put the protection of wildlife or the environment before short-term business profits regardless of the severity of consequences.