Conservation news

In the fight to save the vaquita, conservationists take on cartels

Vaquitas in front of a fishing skiff in the Sea of Cortez. Image by Sea Shepherd.

  • 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.

“The vaquita issue, in my opinion, is an example of epic, epic failure of conservation,” Andrea Crosta, executive director of Earth League International (ELI), an NGO that investigates wildlife crime, told Mongabay in an interview. “I don’t think rhinos and elephants combined have $100 million … and yet the vaquitas went from a few hundred individuals to … nobody knows how many now. Probably 12, 10, maybe less.”

But Crosta says it’s not the fishers deploying the gillnets that are the biggest threat to the vaquitas — it’s the people organizing the illegal trade of totoabas behind the scenes. They’re the ones placing the gillnets into the fishermen’s hands, he said.

“They’re very expensive nets, so the fishermen, or the fishing cooperatives, in order to start, they don’t have the money to pay for … nets at $3,000 to $4,000 apiece,” Crosta said. “So they get the money from the traffickers so they are in debt to them. The little bit of totoaba that they get is used to repay the nets. And that’s why, sometimes they [the traffickers] kill them, because they cannot repay them.”

While Crosta says the key to saving the vaquita is fighting against organized crime, other NGOs have focused their efforts on monitoring the Sea of Cortez for illegal gillnet use or placing international pressure on the Mexican government through seafood sanctions.

There may be multiple approaches to try and save the near-extinct vaquita, but there’s one thing that nearly everyone seems to agree upon: what happens this year could decide the vaquita’s fate. Either the imperiled porpoise will stage a recovery, or it will make its final and precipitous dive toward extinction.

One of the few images of a living vaquita, taken in 2008. Image by Thomas Jefferson / NOAA / Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

‘It’s a difficult situation’

 

The totoaba fishing craze began in the Sea of Cortez in the 1920s. The marine fish was originally caught for its meat, but a Chinese market developed for its swim bladder, which is believed to have medicinal value, although this claim hasn’t been scientifically proven.

By 1975, the species had become so overfished that the Mexican government permanently banned the fishing of totoaba, which was listed as an endangered species by the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service three years later. A couple of decades after that, it was also classified as critically endangered by the IUCN. Yet totoaba fishing has persisted, with swim bladders being regularly smuggled out of Mexico and sold in China through a thriving black market. In the process, countless vaquitas have gotten tangled up in the gillnets intended not only for the totoaba, but also for shrimp and other fish species in the Sea of Cortez.

In 1997, it was estimated that there were about 567 vaquitas left in the Sea of Cortez. A decade later, their numbers had dwindled down to 245, a 57% decline. By 2014, the population had dropped another 60% to 97. The following year, the Mexican government banned all gillnet fishing in an effort to save both the vaquita and the totoaba — but vaquita numbers, in particular, kept falling. In 2015, experts said there were only about 60 individuals left.

The latest published estimate of the vaquita population stated that as of the summer of 2018, there were fewer than 19 individuals left. Lorenzo Rojas-Bracho, head of marine mammal research and conservation with the Mexican government’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP by its Spanish acronym), said a new study, which has yet to be published, puts the figure at around nine individuals, including three calves. However, he said that getting an exact number isn’t easy.

“Let’s say, for example, that you have a room full of marbles,” Rojas-Bracho told Mongabay in an interview. “With 300 marbles, it would be easy for you to find them at the beginning. But once you have 10, it is going to be hard.”

He also says that people involved in illegal fishing regularly steal CONANP’s acoustic monitoring equipment, possibly because they view vaquita conservation work as a deterrent to their trafficking. He added that scientists like himself are also being unfairly blamed for the current gillnet ban.

“It’s a difficult situation,” he said. “We put [the monitoring equipment] in the water and leave them [there] and then pick them up [and] download the data, but now they steal our devices. I think in a way … it’s revenge.”

As for the totoaba, no one really knows how many are left, although their populations are considered “severely reduced.”

Fishermen with an illegal haul of totoaba. Image courtesy of Elephant Action League.

‘It’s a criminal issue’

 

To Crosta, the fight to save the vaquita shouldn’t necessarily be viewed as a conservation issue.

“It’s a criminal issue, with, of course, environmental implications and conservation implications,” he said. “But first of all, it’s a criminal issue, so the responsibility to fight back has to be given to crime specialists — not to biologists, not to scientists, not even to activists.”

Crosta, who was featured in the 2019 National Geographic documentary Sea of Shadows, has spent more than three years working with his ELI colleagues to compile as much data as possible on the individual criminals and syndicates behind the illegal totoaba trade, which they pass on to the Mexican authorities.

“Slowly but surely, we were able to map, and to identify, all the most important players in Mexico, especially behind totoaba trafficking poaching and trafficking,” he said.

This ultimately led to the arrests of six Mexicans suspected of totoaba trafficking in November 2020. One of the men arrested was Sunshine Rodríguez Peña, the alleged leader of a local cartel involved in totoaba trafficking.

“They were triggered by our reports and by our information,” Crosta said. “More than half of the people arrested [we had] details [about] already in our confidential report two years ago. So we’re very happy that they did it.”

But Crosta says he doesn’t think these arrests will ultimately solve the problem since totoaba traffickers from Mexico team up with Chinese businesspeople and crime organizations.

“I told them [the authorities], ‘Do not stop [with] the Mexicans,’” he said. “There are many key people in Mexico in totoaba cartels, yes, but they need the Chinese traders in Mexico in order to smuggle the totoaba outside of Mexico. So the Chinese traders in Mexico are the most important link of the whole supply chain.”

Yet the Chinese traffickers in Mexico remain at large, Crosta said. Across the Pacific, however, there have been efforts to disrupt the supply chain.

In December 2018, Chinese customs officials confiscated 444 kilograms (980 pounds) of totoaba swim bladders — estimated at the time to be worth about $26 million — in the cities of Guangdong and Guangxi. While this happened far away from the Sea of Cortez, it had a significant impact on the totoaba market in Mexico, Crosta said.

“Almost instantaneously, the totoaba illegal market in Mexico crashed,” he said. “It went down, down, down, down, down — almost zero — because finally, they touched their real pressure points.”

Sea Shepherd crew members with an illegal gillnet retrieved from the Sea of Cortez. Image by David Reina / Sea Shepherd.

‘The only way that the vaquita will survive’

 

Other groups have taken different approaches. Sea Shepherd, an international marine conservation NGO, has been going down to the Sea of Cortez since 2015 to monitor the area for illegal fishing activity, working in partnership with the Mexican government. The group physically removes gillnets from the Vaquita Refuge, a 184,100-hectare (455,000-acre) area in the Upper Gulf of California, sometimes directly confronting fishing vessels seen to be using these illegal gillnets.

Since the start of their campaign, the group says it has extracted more than 1,000 gillnets from the vaquita habitat, some of which have dead or live totoaba or other marine species tangled up in the mesh. In 2019, the group even found a dead vaquita that had been caught in a gillnet.

“Sea Shepherd favors the strategy of physical intervention because the only way that the vaquita will survive is if their habitats are kept clear of illegal fishing gear,” Peter Hammarstedt, director of campaigns at Sea Shepherd, told Mongabay in an email. “Every net that is removed from the sea, saves the lives of countless marine creatures and gives the vaquita fighting chance.”

On Dec. 31, 2020, there was a violent confrontation between Sea Shepherd and fishermen on board several local fishing boats, or pangas. According to the NGO, the fishermen were attacking two Sea Shepherd vessels, the Farley Mowat and the Sharpie, which were carrying both Sea Shepherd crew members and Mexican navy personnel, with lead weights and Molotov cocktails when one of the pangas collided with the Farley Mowat. One fisherman died as a result of the incident, while another was seriously injured.

“This … attack is the latest in a series of increasingly violent assaults launched against Sea Shepherd’s ships over the past month,” Sea Shepherd said in a statement. “Assailants have hurled Molotov cocktails, knives, hammers, flares, bottles of fuel, and other deadly projectiles at the vessels, crew, and military personnel on board. No serious injuries have occurred prior to today’s incident.”

The Mexican navy released a similar statement, saying the poachers deliberately attacked the Sea Shepherd vessels. The incident is still being investigated.

Kristin Nowell, founder of the Cetacean Action Treasury, an NGO focused on vaquita conservation which partners with local NGOs and fishers in San Felipe on net removal projects, says there has been a lot of anger following the incident.

“There is a tendency to want to blame the Sea Shepherds for everything — for the collision (which was an accident many of us have been dreading given the increasingly risky maneuvers of pangas harassing them) and for the atmosphere of conflict and crisis,” Nowell told Mongabay in an email. “But Sea Shepherds wouldn’t be needed in the Vaquita Refuge to pull illegal nets if fishers weren’t so busy putting them in.”

Nowell says she is worried about what will happen to the vaquita now since Sea Shepherd has left the area and no one is there to patrol for illegal gillnet use. The totoaba will also likely have a late spawning season, which means that most of them have yet to arrive in the Upper Gulf of California and the main poaching season has yet to begin.

“Observers in San Felipe report the Vaquita Refuge is full of gillnetters, particularly in … the southwestern part of the refuge, near where vaquitas were last detected,” she said. “And it’s so blatant they’re actually marking the nets with visible buoys instead of trying to hide their activity.”

Another NGO, the Washington, D.C.-based Animal Welfare Institute, has been working to pressure the U.S. government to ban imports of Mexican shrimp and other fish caught in the vaquita habitat. Along with the Center for Biological Diversity and the Natural Resources Defense Council, AWI helped facilitate an embargo on these seafood products in 2018, and for the ban to be expanded to cover all seafood caught in the northern Gulf of California in 2020.

“Once the initial embargo went into place, you saw much more movement from the shrimp industry, saying that, ‘Yes, obviously there’s a problem,’” Kate O’Connell, marine animal consultant at AWI, told Mongabay in an interview. “I do think that it does cause the government to stop and pause and reflect upon what they need to be doing.”

However, she says the only way that the embargo will truly work is if the Mexican government properly supports the local fishing community.

“The fishing communities have been really poorly treated by the Mexican government,” O’Connell said. “Alternative gear has existed for some time. They haven’t made it available or they’ve made it very difficult to get permits [for the gear]. They haven’t offered alternative livelihoods to these people, and a number of young people are thinking of doing something other than fishing. The entire region has just been sort of left to flounder.”

Crosta says the sanctions are entirely misdirected since they’re hurting local fishermen who are struggling to make a living while navigating the fishing bans in the Upper Gulf, which could exacerbate the issue of protecting the vaquita.

“What do you think would be the effect?” Crosta said. “It’s turning every single, last honest fisherman into a poacher, into an illegal fisherman. It’s just a favor to criminals. If you want to put sanctions [on something], put sanctions on something else — not on fish.”

Crosta also says that any tactics that do not directly target the criminal syndicates involved in totoaba trafficking are simply “buying time.”

“They buy time for the vaquita so it’s very important, but you do not address the problem,” he said. 

Two vaquitas in the Sea of Cortez. Image by Sea Shepherd.

‘If we stop killing them, the vaquita might recover’

 

While the vaquita population is dangerously low, Rojas-Bracho says there may be three calves in the population right now, which shows that the vaquitas are still actively breeding — and offers a sliver of hope.

“One of our surveys in 2018 showed that there’s a chance that they produce a calf every year, instead of every other year,” he said. “If that’s true, that means a population can — and this is very exciting — they can recover.”

Rojas-Bracho is also the co-author of a new study that suggests the species has enough genetic diversity to keep the population going.

“It’s not doomed to extinction, because of the genetic makeup,” he said. “If we stop killing them, the vaquita might recover.”

While different NGOs are employing various tactics to protect the vaquita, Crosta is firm in his belief that the species’ last chance of survival pivots on the arrest of all totoaba criminals — not only the local traffickers but also their Chinese counterparts.

“My biggest regret is that we could not find earlier the funds needed to … save the vaquita by destroying the trafficking networks behind the illegal trade of totoaba,” Crosta told Mongabay in an email following our interview. “But we managed to map all the illegal supply chain and identify all the top Chinese traffickers in Mexico. The authorities have been given all the information.

“They need to complete the job,” he added. “And we are ready to help.”

Citation:

Morin, P. A., Archer, F. I., Avila, C. D., Balacco, J. R., Bukhman, Y. V., Chow, W., … Jarvis, E. D. (2020). Reference genome and demographic history of the most endangered marine mammal, the vaquita. Molecular Ecology Resources. doi:10.1101/2020.05.27.098582

Banner image caption: Vaquitas in front of a fishing skiff in the Sea of Cortez. Image by Sea Shepherd.

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.