This is how bad things have gotten for the world’s cutest little porpoise.
With only about 60 left, an international treaty of governments is making a last, desperate effort to save them because earlier measures haven’t worked.
The critically endangered vaquita continues to drown in the nets that fishermen drag through the Gulf of California in Mexico to catch a sea bass called totoaba. The fishing is illegal but highly profitable: A pair of totoaba bladders can fetch $8,500 in China, where they are prized as both a delicacy and in traditional medicine.
So this week the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species urged Mexico, the United States and China to work harder to end the trade of totoaba. Mexico is where they are caught. The United States is often where totoaba bladders, called maw, are trucked to ports. China is their final destination. CITES, as the convention is known, told the three governments to do a better job of sharing police information on seizures and busts to catch more criminals.
Although the CITES decision targets the totoaba — itself an endangered species — the real aim is to end the massacre of vaquitas. A stock assessment by a panel of international scientists estimated two years ago that fewer than 100 vaquitas were left and that their numbers were declining at a rate of nearly 20 percent a year.
Mexico has long had laws to protect the vaquita, which is Spanish for “little cow.” The question has been the degree of enforcement, according to U.S. marine officials who pushed the Mexican government to crack down harder on poaching. Mexico responded by pushing back — policing a delta full of impoverished fishermen hoping to cash in on sea bass to feed families isn’t easy.
Over just a few weeks in 2014, nearly 400 totoaba bladders were confiscated in Mexico City. Laws were passed there to gradually replace mesh gill nets with a baglike trawl made of lightweight material that wouldn’t snag vaquitas, but U.S. officials worried that the three-year transition could be fatal for an animal predicted to disappear altogether in four years.
“There’s this reality of losing an animal forever,” Frances Gulland of the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission said at the time.
Though both the totoaba and vaquita were already getting the strongest protections under CITES, member nations meeting in Johannesburg decided Thursday that greater measures were needed.
Their new directive placed the weight of saving the vaquita on the backs of the three nations. They are “parties that are range, transit or consumer countries of totoaba,” said Zak Smith, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council who attended the meeting.
Based on seizure information from smuggling busts, China is the destination for most totoaba. Mexico and the United States are currently cooperating to police the trade, and CITES told China to join them. “With the sharing of this information, law enforcement could better define flows and target additional efforts,” Smith said. “Basically, the decisions call on Mexico, the U.S., and China to step up efforts to combat trafficking via seizures and sharing information with each other on seizures, and to raise awareness and conduct demand reduction activities.”
Timid and elusive — to the point that they’re hardly ever seen — vaquitas are four to five feet long and weigh up to about 120 pounds. And they’re adorable.
“It’s got the goth look going on, the black lipstick and heavy mascara around the eyes,” said Barbara Taylor, a conservation biologist for the Commerce Department’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center in San Diego.
Vaquitas have been in trouble for at least 75 years. Records trace the beginning of the end to a frenzy of fishing in 1942, when Mexicans caught more than 2,000 tons of the fish, probably drowning many vaquitas in the process.
After the totoaba fishery produced only 59 tons in 1975, strict regulations were put in place. Two years later, vaquitas were listed as threatened. The slow growth of the population compounded the problem. Vaquitas mature at three to six years of age, and females only give birth to a single calf every other year.