The vaquita, the world’s rarest marine mammal, with only an estimated 60 left in the wild, has been given a beacon of hope. The Mexican government has announced that from September, there will be a permanent ban on the use of gill nets in the upper Gulf of California, the only place where vaquita can be found. The vaquita is living on the edge of extinction, less than 60 years after it was first discovered in 1958. In just three years, the vaquita population has plummeted by 50%, with an average of 39 vaquita dying each year. If this death rate continues unabated, the vaquita will be extinct by 2018.
Vaquita are being killed by fishing nets used for the illegal fishing of the critically endangered totoaba fish. The bladders of these fish are regarded as a delicacy in China and the demand for them has skyrocketed, with bladders selling for around £6,000 per kilogram. For each pound of totoaba caught, fishermen receive the same as they would for half a year’s worth of legal fishing. Vaquita are the unintended victims of this demand, becoming entangled in the fine-meshed nets and ultimately, drowning. It was this same reason that brought vaquita levels crashing down in the 1970s, when totoaba fish were over-fished and declared an endangered species.
As well as a permanent ban on the use of gill nets, Mexico have also made a joint announcement with the USA, stating that both countries will increase their cooperative enforcement efforts to stop the illegal trade in totoaba bladders as well as work with international experts to develop alternative fishing nets that are vaquita-friendly, whilst disposing of all illegal fishing gear from the Gulf of California.
The instatement of a permanent ban alongside a promise of cooperation with the US is indeed encouraging news, as this shows that the Mexican government are committed to bringing the vaquita back from the brink of extinction; but this may not be enough unless Mexico and the US also work with China to curb the demand for totoaba fish. China need to do their bit to acknowledge the demand in totoaba fish and deal with it appropriately. Educating the public will be crucial in addressing this issue. It seemingly made an impact on shark fin soup consumption when celebrity-fronted campaigns made the public aware of the plight of sharks; so there is every reason to believe that a similar campaign could work for the totoaba, and hence for the vaquita as well.
However, if the demand from China continues, totoaba prices will remain high, meaning that fishermen will still find ways to catch totoaba and therefore doom the vaquita to extinction.
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