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 borders around their expressive eyes and rounded mouth. They’re known to be shy and elusive — but all too easy to scoop up in alarming numbers in fishing nets.
Scientists say there may now be fewer than 30 vaquitas left.
The animals’ numbers have plummeted from 200 in 2012. The primary threat to vaquitas is entanglement in fishing gear, including in nets set for the totoaba, a large and endangered fish endemic to the Gulf. Totoaba swim bladders are illegally exported to Asia to make soup perceived to have medicinal properties. Demand for the bladders spiked around 2011, and a single bladder can reportedly sell for between $2,500 and $10,000. The demand means even more vaquita-entangling nets in the water.
In response to international pressure, in 2015 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.
For years, the Center and our partners have been working to create more tools, resources and incentives to save the last of the vaquitas.
In 2014 we petitioned the United States (under a U.S. law called the Pelly Amendment) to institute trade sanctions against Mexico — which could include a ban on the import of shrimp from Mexico — if the country doesn’t crack down on the criminal totoaba trade threatening the world’s last few vaquitas. In January 2017, after no response to our 2014 petition, we filed a notice of intent to sue the United States to force it to institute trade sanctions against Mexico over illegal fishing.
In 2014 we also petitioned 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. In July 2017, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee gave Mexico one year to improve protections for the home of the vaquita or face an “in danger” designation for the Gulf of California site.
In May 2017, with the vaquita population having declined by 90 percent over the last five years, the Center and allies 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 porpoise from looming extinction.
The pressure is on both the United States and Mexico to heed the call to save the vaquita before this tiny cetacean disappears forever.
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2017 petition to U.S. to ban imports of seafood caught with gillnets Upper Gulf of California
2017 notice of intent to sue over U.S. refusal to institute sanctions
2015 petition to include the islands and protected areas of the Gulf as "in danger"
2014 Pelly Amendment petition
1985 federal Endangered Species Act listing
Contact: Sarah Uhlemann