The world’s smallest cetacean, the Critically Endangered Vaquita (Phocoena sinus), is facing its most daunting challenge yet. Despite decades of conservation work to protect this porpoise in its limited habitat in the northern Gulf of California, Mexico, an unlikely but illegal trade in wildlife has arisen all to quickly. Chinese demand for the swim bladder of another threatened species – the Totoaba fish (Totoaba macdonaldi) – is now accelerating the slide toward extinction for this species of porpoise.
This grave news comes after valuable progress had been made to mitigate the original threat caused by bycatch in shrimp and fin fish fisheries through working directly with local fishermen – conservation work which SOS continues to fund.
According to a report published by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), latest estimates indicate there are fewer than 100 of these animals including 25 breeding adult females, meaning emergency measures are critical. The problem is that the gill nets used to catch totoaba are extremely effective in trapping vaquita as bycatch. Omar Vidal of WWF Mexico, explains, "if there is fishing for totoaba this September, the vaquita might disappear this year.”
The bladder of the totoaba is prized by Chinese chefs, who use it to make soups and other dishes. In fact recent reports estimate that one totoaba bladder can attract a $5,000 to $7,000 payoff in the United States, and more than $10,000 in Asia, making it a tempting prospect for fishermen. In 2013 alone, Mexican regulators seized illegal totoaba bladders worth an estimated $2.25 million according to a recent AP news article. The bladders are dried and smuggled out of Mexico by various routes including via the USA.
The CIRVA report has made a number of recommendations concerning emergency conservation measures including extending a total ban on using, possessing or even transporting gill nets in the upper Sea of Cortez, around the vaquita’s limited habitat range, and perhaps even beyond it. These nets offer no exclusionary devices to allow bycatch to escape. Meanwhile an SOS funded project, implemented by WWF and local partners, offers gear swaps for vaquita-friendly fishing equipment. As the totoaba fishery is illegal, any fishers engaged in it do so in utter secrecy and consequently do not participate in the Government endorsed gear swap implemented by WWF. Hence finding more alternative livelihood options for fishermen to consider is also deemed critical to resolving the crisis.
Meanwhile the prospect of establishing a vaquita captive breeding programme is not recognised as a viable option because of the difficulty and risk associated in capturing a sufficient number of vaquitas to operate such a programme.
As always, there is hope. With emergency action, interventions can be made quickly if properly funded using mechanisms such as SOS to channel funds: the science is in place. But first must come the coordination at the international and policy level, bringing together different stakeholders including international law enforcement and governmental bodies to enable sustainable solutions for the desert porpoise.