SAVING THE VAQUITA

Mexico’s Gulf of California — one of the most biodiverse places on the planet— teems with 891 species of fish and a third of the world’s cetacean species, including the smallest and most endangered porpoise on Earth: the vaquita.

Vaquitas are about the size of small humans, topping out at about 5 feet long and 120 pounds, with black lining around their expressive eyes and rounded mouth. They’re known to be shy and elusive — but apparently all too easy to scoop up in alarming numbers in fishing nets.

Scientists say there may now be fewer than 50 vaquitas left.

The animals’ numbers have plummeted from 200 in 2012. The biggest threats to vaquitas are fishing nets set for shrimp and a giant endangered fish called the totoaba. Asian demand for this fish’s swim bladder, which is believed to increase fertility and improve skin, has skyrocketed, and a single totoaba bladder can now reportedly sell for $14,000. The demand means even more vaquita-entangling nets in the water.

In response to international pressure, Mexico announced a new two-year ban on gillnets in the Gulf to protect the vaquita. But the remoteness of the Gulf — ringed by high cliffs and dotted with hundreds of desolate islands — has made it challenging to police, particularly given the involvement of drug cartels in the illegal totoaba trade. And Mexico has a sad history of announcing plans to save the vaquita, but failing to follow through with enforcement. So the Center and our allies are working to create more tools, resources and incentives to save the last of the vaquitas.

We’re petitioning the United States (under a U.S. law called the Pelly Amendment) to institute trade sanctions against Mexico if it doesn’t crack down on the criminal totoaba trade threatening the world’s last few vaquitas. Those sanctions could include a ban on the import of shrimp from Mexico. We’re also petitioning the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to place the Gulf of California on its World Heritage “in danger” list, which would give Mexico more funding for vaquita protection, along with international assistance for this rarest of porpoises.

The pressure is on Mexico to save the vaquita. We can only hope Mexico heeds the call before the vaquita disappears forever.