The vaquita and the totoaba have much in common: both are critically endangered, both are protected from international trade under CITES and both are endemic to a relatively small area of the Upper Gulf of California, Mexico. They are of a similar size, have a similar lifespan and both species are threatened with extinction by the same activity – illegal fishing.
The vaquita is a small porpoise found only in the waters of the northern Gulf of California, off the coast of Mexico. In 1997, its population was estimated at 567 but by 2014 it had plummeted to just 97 animals due to fishery bycatch. Recent evidence based on acoustic monitoring suggests a 42 per cent decline in the vaquita population between 2013-14. This alarming, accelerated decline is attributed to the resurgence of an illegal fishery for totoaba, the swim bladders of which are highly sought in Hong Kong and southern mainland China. Dubbed ‘aquatic cocaine’ due to the high prices it fetches, the demand for dried totoaba swim bladders is threatening not just the totoaba but also the vaquita – the world’s most endangered marine mammal, which is accidentally caught in the illegal nets set for totoaba.
The totoaba has been listed as critically endangered since 1996; however population estimates have not been carried out since fishing for this species was banned in 1975. As with other large long-lived fish species in the croaker family, totoaba are vulnerable to over-fishing, particularly given the additional market pressure from the value of the swim bladder in foreign markets.
Recently, the plight of the vaquita and the totoaba has gained international attention. Mexico has implemented an emergency two-year gillnet fishing ban throughout the vaquita range. US agencies in southern California, a hub for totoaba swim bladders smuggled from neighbouring Mexico en route to China, have made a series of seizures and prosecutions. Yet, as EIA’s research and on-the-ground monitoring shows, the enforcement response in the main totoaba markets of Hong Kong and China remains inadequate.
While this lucrative market continues, vaquita will inevitably die in illegal fishing nets and dwindle to extinction. Governments, customs and other enforcement agencies need to urgently step up efforts to halt the illegal totoaba trade in order to save both species.