Vaquita face a singular, deadly threat that has pushed them to the brink: entanglement in fishing nets as bycatch.
Bycatch refers to the accidental capture of non-target species in fishing gear, and it is the primary cause of the vaquita’s decline. The Gulf of California is home to a thriving fishing industry, targeting a variety of fish and shrimp species. Unfortunately, the nets used in these fishing activities are not selective, often entrapping and killing vaquitas alongside the intended catch.
The most dangerous fishing gear for vaquitas is the gillnet. These nets are designed to catch fish by their gills, trapping them as they attempt to swim through. However, gillnets are indiscriminate, ensnaring vaquitas as well. Once trapped, the vaquitas are unable to surface for air, causing them to suffocate and drown.
Compounding the issue, illegal fishing for the totoaba, a large fish found in the same waters as the vaquita, has increased the use of gillnets in the area. Totoaba swim bladders are in high demand on the black market, particularly in Asia, where they are believed to have medicinal properties. This lucrative trade has intensified the pressure on the vaquita population, as more gillnets are deployed to catch the valuable totoaba.
Some of the efforts that are underway to save the remaining vaquita population from extinction target the bycatch thread: They include implementing and enforcing bans on gillnet fishing, promoting alternative fishing gear that is less harmful to vaquitas, and supporting local communities in developing sustainable livelihoods that do not rely on destructive fishing practices.