The Vaquita Marine Protected Area in the Gulf of California that is home to the remaining population of critically endangered vaquita porpoises has been enlarged to nearly 50%, but is it too little too late?

NOAA Fisheries, vaquita, endangered species, over-fishing, overfishing, porpoise, marine mammal, Vaquita Marine Protected Area

The Mexican Secretary of the Environment Rafael Pacchiano Aleman announced on April 20th that the Vaquita Marine Protected Area is being increased to include 1,841 square kilometers. The International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA) requested this increase following sightings of the world’s most endangered marine mammal outside the original limits of the reserve. (photo – NOAA Fisheries)

vaquita marine protected area, endangered mammalThe news was welcomed, but Alejandro Olivera, from the Center for Biological Diversity also expressed regret that this had not been done years ago. Olivera stressed that unless all gillnet fishing is eliminated in the vaquita habitat and the illegal trafficking of totoaba swim bladders is stopped, then the decline in vaquita numbers will continue.

The Mexican government has instituted a ban on gillnet fishing in the area, but so far enforcement of the ban has not eliminated the taking of totoaba with its vaquita bycatch.

Estimates vary on the number of vaquitas that remain ranging from a dozen to approximately 30 individuals.


Gillnets = Totoaba = Vaquita

dried totoaba swim bladders in chinese herbal medicine market anthony wallace aft-getty, vaquita marine protected area

Intertwined with the viability of the critically endangered vaquita is that of the equally endangered Totoaba bass. The totoaba is the target of illegal poachers seeking the fish’s swim bladder.

Once dried the bladder is sold to Asian underworld cartels as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine. (photo – Anthony Wallace)

With numbers of available totoaba declining dramatically, the swim bladder prices are skyrocketing. One bladder can bring prices exceeding $20,000 per kilo on the Asian black market. Its a classic example of hunting the golden goose into extinction.

The connection in all of this are the illegal gillnets that are used by poachers to catch the totoaba with the vaquita porpoise often a bycatch casualty of the same gillnets.


Sea Shepherd Saves Totoabas at peak of spawning season

While patrolling within the Vaquita refuge the M/V SHARPIE, a Sea Shepherd vessel, discovered an entangled, illegal gillnet. With strong currents running, the crew extricated the tangled net. The drama increased when they realized that the net held 25 live, totoaba bass.

chris wheaton, totoaba endangered fish vaquita porpoise vaquita marine protected area“Those fish were five minutes away from death and we saved them—it was a miracle,” said Willie Hatfield, the bosun of the M/V/ Sharpie, “As we were leaving, we saw a skiff coming to retrieve the net.”

Saving the 25 totoaba was especially important since it was the height of totoaba spawning season in the northern Gulf of California.

Sea Shepherd operates two coastal patrol ships in the area, each with five Mexican enforcement officers on board to make arrests for poaching if necessary. This also increases security on the patrol vessels, very  important with tensions and violence on the rise. Poachers have taken to shooting down drones and lobbing incendary objects at the ships. Since 2015 when Operation Milagro IV began Sea Shepherd has removed more than 62 miles of illegal fishing nets from the Sea of Cortez. (photo – Chris Wallace)

By Robert Frerck, Blue Ocean Network


See these Related Blue Ocean Articles:

Vaquita Update: Only 12 Remain, says Watchdog
China, Mexico and U.S. join in effort to save the Vaquita
International Save The Vaquita Day
Chinese appetite for totoaba fish bladder kills off rare porpoise
What does the US Navy, Dolphins and Vaquitas Have in Common
Illegal Trafficking of Wildlife: What You Need To Know!
Saving the Iconic and Endangered Nassau Grouper
World Sea Turtle Day: Turtles Face Environmental and Political Threats


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