Conservation news

’Rampant’ fishing continues as vaquita numbers dwindle

  • An expedition surveying the Gulf of California for the critically endangered vaquita porpoise has reported seeing more than 70 fishing boats in a protected refuge.
  • Vaquita numbers have been decimated in the past decade as a result of gillnet fishing for another critically endgangered species, the totoaba, a fish whose swim bladder can fetch more than $20,000 per kilogram ($9,000 per pound) in Asian markets.
  • Local fishing organizations in the region say that the government has stopped compensating them after a gillnet ban, aimed at protecting the vaquita from extinction, went into effect in 2015.

Scientists and conservation activists conducting a survey for the critically endangered vaquita in October witnessed more than 70 fishing boats within the porpoise’s protected Gulf of California refuge, according to the environmental NGO Sea Shepherd.

“It is heartbreaking that with less than 20 vaquitas left, this small critical area is still impacted by gillnets,” Sea Shepherd campaigns director Lockhart MacLean said in a statement from the organization, which described the fishing activity as “rampant.”

A vaquita swims in the Gulf of California. Image by Paula Olson/NOAA via Wikimedia Commons (Public domain).

The vaquita (Phocoena sinus) is the smallest and most threatened of the world’s cetaceans, a group that also includes whales and dolphins. A 2019 study published in the journal Royal Society Open Science concluded that no more than 18 individuals survive in the upper reaches of Mexico’s Gulf of California, part of the Sea of Cortez wedged between Baja California and mainland Mexico.

In 1997 vaquita likely numbered in the hundreds. But intense pressure on another critically endangered species, a fish called the totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), has had a devastating collateral effect on the porpoise. Totoaba swim bladders, prized for their purported medicinal value, sell for up to $20,000 per kilogram ($9,000 per pound) in markets in China and elsewhere in Asia. In the past decade, gillnets set by illegal fishers to feed skyrocketing demand have snagged and drowned countless vaquita.

The Mexican government banned gillnets in the vaquita’s habitat temporarily in 2015 and then permanently in 2016. But fishers have continued to use the method in the pursuit of totoaba and other fish species. The 2019 study reports that 10 vaquita are known to have died in gillnets between 2016 and 2019, and the population continued to sink during that period.

A vaquita swims near a fishing boat using gillnets. Image courtesy of CONANP/Museo de la Ballena/SEA SHEPHERD.

The boats, or pangas, seen by Sea Shepherd and its expedition partners, Mexico’s National Commission on Protected Areas (CONANP) and the Museo de la Ballena, were reportedly using gillnets to go after shrimp, chano and corvina, not totoaba. But the team worried that the end result could be the same.

“Unfortunately, these pangas are exactly where we saw the remaining vaquitas during the last sighting voyage,” Octavio Carranza, a Sea Shepherd captain, said in the statement. “This is also where we found a dead vaquita tangled in a gillnet a few months ago.”

Local fishermen, however, say they’ve been left with little choice.

“We want the United Nations to know that the fishing sector in our community went out fishing without respecting agreements or protected areas as a result of the lack of attention and dialogue the federal Government has given to this issue,” Ramón Franco, the president of a Baja-based fishing cooperative, said in the statement.

The expedition’s crew surveys the Gulf of California for vaquita. Image courtesy of CONANP/Museo de la Ballena/SEA SHEPHERD.

As part of the ban, the Mexican government was supposed to compensate fishers who lost income because they could no longer use gillnets. But those payments reportedly stopped by early 2019, Sea Shepherd said. That’s led to frustration among law-abiding fishers, as those willing to flout the rules continue to profit from gillnet fishing, said Carlos Tirado, the leader of a regional group of fishing cooperatives.

“We are between a rock and a hard place: between organized crime and the problems derived from illegal activities in the area, and pressure towards the commercial fishing sector by the government,” Tirado said in the statement. “Those most affected are our fishing organizations that stick to the rules. Those who most benefit are the illegal fishers.”

He called on Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador to address the matter immediately. In mid-October, the federal government announced that it would “strengthen surveillance” in the marine reserve, according to the newspaper Excélsior, but the article did not mention whether the government would start handing out compensation payments again.

The Farley Mowat, a Sea Shepherd vessel, pictured during the survey in the Gulf of California. Image courtesy of CONANP/Museo de la Ballena/SEA SHEPHERD.

Despite the sighting of so many fishing boats carrying nets that could be lethal to the vaquita, the fact that the vaquita is persisting in the area has buoyed hopes for the survival of the species. In September, crew members spotted vaquita pairs on three different occasions.

“Under the current circumstances, the most important piece of information right now is that there are still vaquitas surviving,” Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, one of the expedition’s chief scientists who leads marine mammal research at CONANP, said in the statement. “[H]opefully we can track the lives of these few fit individuals and protect them exactly where they are.”

Banner image of a fishing skiff, or panga, in the Gulf of California courtesy of CONANP/Museo de la Ballena/SEA SHEPHERD.


Findley, L. (2010). Totoaba macdonaldi. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, 8235, 8. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2010-3.RLTS.T22003A9346099.en

Jaramillo-Legorreta, A. M., Cardenas-Hinojosa, G., Nieto-Garcia, E., Rojas-Bracho, L., Thomas, L., Ver Hoef, J. M., … Tregenza, N. (2019). Decline towards extinction of Mexico’s vaquita porpoise (Phocoena sinus). Royal Society Open Science, 6(7), 190598. doi:10.1098/rsos.190598

Rojas-Bracho, L., & Taylor, B. L. (2017). Phocoena sinus, Vaquita. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, e.T17028A5, 12. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2017-2.RLTS.T17028A50370296.en

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