If you haven’t heard of the highly endangered vaquita porpoise, you’re not alone. Few people are familiar with this rare marine mammal, found only in the Gulf of California. According to most recent estimates, fewer than 100 of the animals remain in the entire world. Interestingly, the main threat facing the vaquita is the illegal trade of a completely different animal — the totoaba, an endangered fish whose swim bladder is highly prized in China.
No one is sure exactly how many totoaba still exist in the wild. The fish has been listed as critically endangered since 1996, but there have been no population estimates since 1975, when fishing the species was officially banned. Unfortunately, poaching continues. The going rate for a totoaba bladder can be thousands of dollars, more than a month’s salary for the Mexican fishermen who catch them.
The fish are generally trapped using gillnets, which inevitably end up snaring the vaquita and other non-target species, including dolphins and sea turtles. Due to the devastating effect of bycatch in the area, gillnet fishing has been banned in the Gulf of California, although many fishermen continue to use the nets.
So what can be done to protect these two endangered species and stem the illegal sale of totoaba bladders? Bans on the Mexican side of the trade don’t seem to have discouraged poachers — in large part because sellers in China face few repercussions. A recent report from the Environmental Investigation Agency found totoaba bladders openly for sale in Chinese markets, even though sellers were aware it was against the law. Unless the Chinese government steps up its enforcement, researchers estimate that the vaquita could disappear completely in less than three years.
Images via Proyecto Vaquita Marina