International
via Sea Shepherd

MEX - In the Fight to Save the Vaquita, Conservationists Take on Cartels

From above, the Sea of Cortez is a picture of serenity: turquoise waters lapping against rose-tinted bluffs and soft sand beaches. But down below, beneath the water’s surface, a war is raging.

  • The critically endangered vaquita porpoise, a species endemic to the Sea of Cortez in the Upper Gulf of California in Mexico, is at severe risk of extinction due to illegal gillnet fishing for the critically endangered totoaba fish.
  • Andrea Crosta of Earth League International (ELI) says the key to saving the species is arresting all criminals involved in the illegal totoaba trade, while other NGOs work to patrol the Sea of Cortez for illegal gillnet use or to introduce seafood sanctions.
  • With only nine vaquita porpoises believed to be left in the world, most experts agree that this year will be critical to the vaquita’s survival.

From above, the Sea of Cortez is a picture of serenity: turquoise waters lapping against rose-tinted bluffs and soft sand beaches. But down below, beneath the water’s surface, a war is raging.

Each year, typically between late November and May, huge gillnets — some stretching more than 600 meters (2,000 feet), or the length of five and a half football fields — are dropped into the waters to catch totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi). This critically endangered species is illegally fished for its prized swim bladders, which can fetch prices between $20,000 and $80,000 per kilo in China. While gillnets are highly effective at catching totoaba, they also catch just about everything else, including another critically endangered species: the vaquita (Phocoena sinus).

The vaquita is a bathtub-sized porpoise with silvery-gray skin and panda-like eyes that lives exclusively in a small section of the northern Gulf of California, close to the town of San Felipe in Baja California, Mexico. Right now, experts say there may only be about nine vaquitas left, despite the Mexican government spending more than $100 million to aid its recovery.

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