The tiny vaquita porpoise is the world’s most endangered marine mammal. Its numbers are decreasing with fewer than 19 remaining. Vaquitas die from entanglement in illegal gillnets. Gillnets are used in a lucrative illegal fishery for totoaba that serves an illegal trade of swim bladders to China as well as in shrimp and finfish fisheries. Although their use has been banned in all fisheries, and in the absence of government enforcement or support for the use of alternative gear, gillnets continue to be used in all of these fisheries, including in the Zero Tolerance Area designated for protection of the vaquita in their habitat.
The tiny vaquita porpoise is the world’s smallest and most endangered cetacean species. This species split from its closest taxonomic relatives 4.8 million years ago and is now endemic to a small range (4,000 km2) in the turbid waters of the northern Gulf of California, Mexico. The vaquita is now on the brink of extinction with fewer than 19 remaining as of summer 2018. Recent acoustic surveys and visual sightings in Fall 2020 and 2021 indicate the continued presence of vaquitas. Analysis of the 2011 to 2018 Acoustic Monitoring Program data combined with visual observations in 2017 and 2018 showed an estimated average annual rate of decline of 33%, corresponding to a population decline of 98.6% over this period. Eleven dead vaquitas have been found between March 2016 and March 2020 with cause of death directly attributed to gillnets for eight of these.
The primary threat to vaquitas over the last decade is an illegal gillnet fishery for totoaba (Totoaba macdonaldi), a large and endangered fish species also endemic to the upper Gulf of California, which continues despite some enforcement efforts by Mexico. This fishery, which first re-emerged in the early 2010’s and involves large-mesh gillnets exceptionally lethal for vaquitas, is driven by the high price and demand for totoaba swim bladders in China. In May 2016, CIRVA-7 noted that many totoaba nets were being abandoned as poachers sought to avoid detection and enforcement, and the committee called for efforts to find and remove such gear in the range of the vaquita. In response Sea Shepherd Conservation Society initiated efforts to remove and destroy or recycle the illegal gillnetting gear. This program, which was joined by the Museo de la Ballena and the Government of Mexico, continued through 2020 as the illegal totoaba fishing continued unchecked, with 106 recently set nets removed by the end of February in the 2019-20 fishing season by Sea Shepherd vessels alone. At the start of what used to be the legal fishing season for shrimp and finfish in fall 2019, the Mexican government announced it would no longer provide compensation to the fishermen whose livelihoods were threatened by the prohibition of gillnet fishing for shrimp and finfish with in the upper Gulf. The government also refused to provide support for fishermen wishing to use alternative gear that would not entangle vaquitas. Facing economic hardship, many of the displaced fishermen returned to fishing for shrimp with gillnets without authorization. At the current time both the illegal totoaba fishery and the illegal gillnet fisheries for shrimp and finfish continue unchecked with dozens of vessels fishing openly in broad daylight within sight of Mexican enforcement vessels throughout the vaquita refuge and within the Zero Tolerance Area (ZTA) . The net-removal program has been halted since January 2021 following extensive civil unrest in late 2020.
Protective Measures in the Wild
On April 16, 2015, the President of Mexico announced new measures to protect vaquitas, which have been largely implemented by the Mexican Navy and other agencies in a strong show of commitment. These included expansion of the protected area for vaquitas to encompass their entire range, a two-year ban on gillnets within this area, concerted enforcement, support for alternative fishing methods, and compensation to the fishing communities affected by the ban. The measures followed, to a large degree, the recommendations of CIRVA-5 which called upon the Government of Mexico to take immediate action to eliminate gillnets from the vaquita’s entire range and to accompany this measure with strong enforcement action. However, the delay in implementing protective measures, the continuation of intensive gillnet fishing for shrimp and finfish in the months prior to the ban and the difficulty over the past two years of fighting rampant illegal totoaba fishing, which is often conducted at night by highly organized criminal elements, have prevented the species from recovering. In June 2017, the Government of Mexico announced a new permanent ban on the use of gillnets in the shrimp and finfish fisheries of the Upper Gulf of California to replace the two-year gillnet ban. Under the new Mexican Administration, which began in December 2018, illegal fishing has continued, compensation for fishers not to fish has been discontinued, and enforcement has been uncertain.
On 26 July 2018, as rampant totoaba fishing continued, the U.S. Court of International Trade issued a preliminary injunction in a suit brought by conservation organizations “requiring defendants — several United States agencies and officials, and here collectively referred to as “the Government” — to ban the importation of fish or fish products from any Mexican commercial fishery that uses gillnets within the vaquita’s range.” On March 4, 2020, the National Marine Fisheries Service revoked the comparability finding under the MMPA for a number of fisheries operating in the habitat of the vaquita. The MMPA requires prohibition of the import of seafood caught with commercial fishing technology which results in the incidental kill or incidental serious injury of ocean mammals in excess of United States standards.
On 24 September 2020 the Government of Mexico announced an agreement between the Ministries of Agriculture and Rural Development, Environment and Natural Resources that “regulates fishing gears, systems, methods, techniques and schedules for carrying out fishing activities with smaller and greater vessels in Mexican marine areas in the northern Gulf of California and landing sites are established and the use of monitoring systems for vessels.” The agreement established a “Zero Tolerance Area of 225 square kilometers with the refuge area for protection of vaquita, throughout the year, through maritime, air and satellite patrols and surveillance.” There continues to be great concern in the international scientific community that the Government of Mexico continues to question the incontrovertible evidence that gillnets are the primary source of vaquita mortality, and urgent calls for further action to protect the vaquita by international environmental groups.
Given the extreme concern over the safety of vaquitas in their natural habitat, CIRVA-8 recommended that the Mexican Government institute a carefully planned, step-wise attempt to determine whether some vaquitas can be caught and held in a temporary sanctuary until they can be safely returned to a gillnet-free environment. CIRVA-9 concluded that given the recent deaths of at least six animals since CIRVA-8 and the high levels of illegal fishing activity in the Upper Gulf, the only hope for the survival of the species in the short term was to capture vaquitas and bring them into human care. Therefore, CIRVA strongly endorsed the Vaquita Conservation, Protection and Recovery (VaquitaCPR) plan and recommended that as many individuals as possible be captured in October and November 2017 and held until the Upper Gulf is safe for their return. There is grave concern that the vaquita will follow the Yangtze River dolphin (baiji) and become the second cetacean species brought to extinction in the 21st century if further action is not taken to save the species.
VaquitaCPR undertook an ambitious field season, based out of San Felipe, Mexico from 10 October to 10 November 2017. A team of 65 scientists from nine countries was on the water for five full days and eight partial days during the operational time frame as dictated by weather. Vaquitas, in groups of one to three, were seen on eight of these days. Catch nets were set on three days and two vaquitas were captured during field operations. As noted on the VaquitaCPR website, “The first animal, an immature female, was released after veterinarians determined she was not adapting to human care. The second animal, a mature female, that wasn’t pregnant or lactating, was released after not being able to adapt to human care at “El Nido.” During the second release emergency medical care was required. Despite heroic efforts by the veterinary team to save the animal’s life, she did not survive.” The possible loss of an animal during this ambitious conservation attempt was anticipated as a risk, and weighed against the loss of more than 6 animals in the wild to gillnet entanglement in the previous 9 months.
Following the field season, the Mexican government, VaquitaCPR, and CIRVA evaluated next steps. In early December, CIRVA conducted its 10th meeting at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California and released the CIRVA-10 report. Their main conclusion was that the status of the vaquita continues to worsen and that no more than 30 animals remained by mid-2017. Further, the committee accepted the conclusions of the VaquitaCPR team and an independent review panel that additional rescue efforts should be suspended. Moving forward, CIRVA recommended to the Government of Mexico that the first and immediate conservation priority must be to strengthen enforcement efforts and fishing regulations, including a complete ban on gillnet possession and use throughout the range of the vaquita. The CIRVA team also issued a specific recommendation to implement ‘enhanced’ enforcement during the December 2017 – May 2018 totoaba season (December 2017-May 2018) in areas of vaquita and totoaba gillnet overlap. Further information can be found here.
One of the real advances was the use of underwater acoustic monitoring to detect vaquitas on a daily basis and provide information for the visual search team. This was built on the annual program of acoustic monitoring that has informed estimation of vaquita abundance over the last decade. Despite the extensive loss of equipment stolen by fishermen, real-time acoustic monitoring has been used to a limited extent to inform visual sighting efforts in 2020 and 2021.
What the Commission Is Doing
The Marine Mammal Commission supports the efforts of the Government of Mexico and the international community to address the threat to this critically endangered marine mammal – incidental mortality in illegal and legal fisheries bycatch and it has a long history of providing funding and international scientific and technical expertise to aid those efforts. The Commission has supported the meetings of the international recovery team (CIRVA) and international efforts to assess vaquita numbers and trends through acoustic monitoring, and it is committed to continuing to assist Mexico in its efforts to prevent the vaquita’s extinction.
The Commission also supports scientific evaluation of trends in the vaquita population, including statistically rigorous assessment of the effectiveness of measures taken by Mexico to slow the species’ decline. The guidance of the international recovery team (CIRVA) has been particularly important for helping to meet this objective.
The Commission has supported efforts to develop, test, and introduce vaquita-safe fishing gear and methods, increase the effectiveness of protected areas, strengthen fisheries enforcement and trade controls, and develop market incentives for vaquita-safe products.
Members of Commission staff, Commissioners, and Scientific Advisors served as advisors to the VaquitaCPR program, were on the leadership team, and participated in all aspects of planning and fieldwork.
Over the past decade, the Commission has taken a leadership role, in collaboration with other U.S. government and Mexican agencies, to explore ways to provide communities in the northern Gulf of California with financially, socially, and ecologically viable alternatives to the gillnet fishing that is currently driving the vaquita toward extinction and to build markets for seafood caught without harming vaquitas.
Commission Reports and Publications
|Letter Date||Letter Description|
|September 21, 2017|
|April 10, 2009|
Vaquitas are threatened by entanglement in gillnets used illegally to catch the endangered totoaba, a fish taken for its swim bladder which is sold in a lucrative illegal trade to China. Use of gillnets for the shrimp and finfish fisheries is currently banned but, in the absence of compensation not to fish, fishermen have returned to the water in Fall 2019 to fish illegally alongside illegal totoaba fishermen.
Current Conservation Efforts
An independent initiative between the “Museo de la Ballena” and local fishing cooperatives to develop alternative fishing gear for shrimp was launched in 2019. Three different types of “suripera” were designed by the local fishermen, who started testing them in late October 2019. The fishing gear appears to work effectively when shrimp are in shallow water, but is less effective in deeper water. Tests are continuing with the goal of refining the designs for broader testing starting in September 2020.
The collaborators in the Vertebrate Genomes Project, including The Rockefeller University, Southwest Fisheries Science Center-NOAA, and the Mexican National Commission on Natural Protected Areas (CONANP) finished sequencing the vaquita genome from living tissue salvaged from animals caught in VaquitaCPR project. Preliminary analyses suggest that low genome-wide heterozygosity is due to tens of thousands of years’ persistence as a small population rather than a recent loss of diversity that might accelerate extinction. The vaquita genome is now the most complete full genome sequence for a cetacean.
On April 16, 2015, the President of Mexico announced new measures to protect vaquitas. These included expansion of the protected area for vaquitas to encompass their entire range, a two-year ban on gillnets within this area, serious enforcement, support for alternative fishing methods, and compensation to the fishing communities affected by the ban. The program to remove derelict and active totoaba gear in the range is receiving broad support from the Mexican government and private sector groups. The presence of illegal totoaba fishing, with apparent support from organized crime has serious security implications for conservation efforts on the water in the upper Gulf of California.
The VaquitaCPR program (see Species Status section) was a carefully planned, step-wise attempt to determine whether some vaquitas could be caught and held in a temporary sanctuary until they can be safely returned to a gillnet-free environment.
The Future/Next Steps
As of early 2020 the long-term dire situation for vaquitas was ever more dire as dozens of illegal totoaba fishermen operated in broad daylight even as more “law abiding” fishermen took to the water to fish with illegal gillnets for shrimp and finfish.
The Commission has supported annual acoustic monitoring of this species since 2011 and will continue to press for enforcement of the permanent ban on gillnets whether used by fishermen in the cartel-driven totoaba fishery or the fishery for shrimp and finfish. The Commission has provided financial support in the past for development and use of alternative fishing methods that do not entangle vaquitas and for the development of markets and market streams to sell products caught with such gear, but at the moment, in the face of lawlessness in the upper Gulf, prospects for advances in legal fisheries and markets are grim.